GRID20/20 Smart City: Lowering the cost of living in a city

Wed, 2013-11-20 06:02 -- Jesse Berst

Q&A with Alan Snook, GRID20/20 President

Alan SnookI guess we should call Alan Snook a "hybrid." Although he works with new-fashioned technology, he uses old-fashioned manners and courtesy. Although he is a smart city pioneer, he has a rural lifestyle. Alan lives on 26 acres near York, Pennsylvania, where he raises chickens, bees and fruit.

That lifestyle may change, however. "My education and lifestyle are agricultural," he told me. "But now that we are empty nesters, I can see us gravitating to a smart city with all of those great amenities." He cites San Francisco and New York as favorite places to visit.

Alan was formerly involved with a family business and investing. In 2006, he became VP Operations for ibec GLOBAL, a company focused on delivering broadband over power line services to international venues. Today he runs GRID20/20, a Council Associate Partner and maker of OptaNODE™ distribution transformer monitors -- a perfect example of the low-cost, high-value sensors that are enabling cities to monitor and optimize their critical infrastructure.

When we spoke, Alan emphasized:

  • The importance of getting early adopters through the pipeline, so their successes will inspire other cities to join in
  • The importance of the integration mindset
  • What smart cities can learn from theme parks
  • How companies like GRID20/20 can lower the cost of living in a city

-- Jesse Berst, November 2013


Has the smart cities market hit the tipping point?

I wish I felt differently, but I think we're five to seven years from the tipping point.

It doesn't mean we're not moving forward, but we're not yet beyond the 3-10% who represent the early adopters. Once we get those cities through the pipeline successfully, it creates a tipping point. We need the pioneer leaders to make it through the smart cities process and "de-risk it" for those that follow.

We have years, or possibly decades ahead of us to determine the best ways to maximize the efficiency of operating a smart city. This is a tremendous opportunity for all of us to lay a great foundation that will live well beyond our days. Right now, we're just chopping the first trees down, and clearing the runway for our successors.

How fast will the market grow?

We'll probably see an early push from a small percentage of cities. Then the sideline folks will want to watch it for a while to judge if the risk is low enough. It may be 5, 7, even 10 years before we hit the tipping point.  The smart cities approach to comprehensive and integrated management requires a massive paradigm shift.

We're getting to a point in our society's evolution where the old guard is going out and a younger leadership generation is entering.  They have an insatiable desire to get things done now, and I’d expect them to compress the adoption timeliness. When that shift in leadership happens it will further empower and invigorate the smart cities movement.

Do we have the technology we need, or is there more to invent?

There's an amazing amount of technology coming at great speed. But technology is nothing more than a facilitator. To succeed, you need solid foundational principles, proper vision and a disciplined action plan. Then you can figure out how to leverage the technology and hit a home run. Thinking that technology will be the lead component in the smart cities evolution is a recipe for disappointment.

Which technologies are core to a smart city?

Smart cities will need to start with the staples -- roadways, bridges, electric, water, sewer. We all expect these foundational amenities to work well, and when they don't life seems terrible. But to make a city "sexy," to attract the best and brightest leadership and inhabitants, a city must offer more than just the staples.

Implementing technologies that will improve efficiencies, and lessen waste will need to be applied.  Integration of the various technologies is key; we have to look at things differently, and find solutions that are synergistic. Traditional leadership seems to have operated from a perspective of "this is my silo, don't mess with it," and that attitude is still pervasive in many cities. We've got to get out of this antiquated approach and look at the big picture from a new perspective. We need to assemble information systems that capture data and can create interactive experiences.

Are there ways to overcome the financing obstacle?

Traditional methods for financing metro improvements are fraught with problems. People are cynical about taxation and how governments spend the money. If we think we are going to be successful through traditional capitalization methods, I fear we are kidding ourselves.

I look at this like a theme park experience. Disney has figured out how to create an experience so we can't wait to go back and spend more of our money. Likewise, cities will need to create a great experience that makes people want to live there, visit, invest and dedicate their time to enhance the experience.  Cities will compete for citizens and smart cities will present the most attractive offerings.

If you can create a compelling vision, then you can attract corporate and philanthropic money to help fund and fulfill the vision. The inherent responsibility that accompanies non-traditional funding methods requires the demonstration of legitimate successes. One of the most important elements to securing the adoption of leadership’s smart cities vision will be to achieve some early wins. That will allow people to feel more confident about anteing up for the next round.  Positive momentum must be created early in the process.

What is GRID20/20's role in the smart cities ecosystem?

We help lower the cost of living in a city. Specifically, we can help to make electricity more affordable by creating efficiency enhancements and identifying power losses.

With our transformer monitors, we have the ability to immediately bring about cost savings for cities. Virtually every municipal utility experiences technical losses and theft losses.  Each category of losses can commonly range from 1-3% of total revenue. This equates to millions of dollars that dissipate from the grid.  We locate these points of loss and permit utilities to lower their revenue losses. And that creates revenue that can then be reinvested in other Smart Cities activities.

In addition to helping electric utilities potentially save millions of dollars, we enhance outage notification, permit preventive maintenance, locate overloaded transformer assets and assist with conservation voltage reduction. We also empower utilities to better accommodate future advancements such as renewables and electric vehicles.  In short, we help to improve the quality of life for communities by helping improve the stability of the electric distribution grid.

What does GRID20/20 do better than any other company?

We aim to be the best in the world in the distribution transformer monitoring space. That is our sole focus.  Every action we take at GRID20/20 contributes toward fulfilling this mission.

Are there any common misconceptions about GRID20/20 and its smart city capabilities?

Perhaps the most common misconception is that smart meters will provide utilities with all of the distribution management information they need to create an intelligent grid. Smart meters do a great job of measuring the electricity being used "at the edge" by each customer, and offer other data points. But, in the U.S. alone, there are 2.2 million miles of distribution lines and 50 million transformers. Given the perpetual, dynamic nature of the distribution space (e.g., lightning strikes, auto damage, asset failures, tree damage, etc. ), we see transformers as the key data point within the heart of the grid.  In turn, we quickly convert transformers into intelligent nodes and then harvest data from these points.  By combining data from substations, endpoint meters and distribution transformers, grid intelligence becomes a genuine reality.  

While many utilities have not been able to cost justify smart meters, our transformer monitors are easier to cost justify and in certain instances they can yield a Return on Investment (ROI) in just two to three years.

What is the single most important thing a city leader should do today to position his city for success?

You've got to create the right vision and effectively convey it to the citizens. Then you've got to translate the vision into actions via roadmaps and funding plans. For instance, in the United States the federal government pumped billions of stimulus dollars into smart meters. But the industry somewhat dropped the ball because it didn't create a clear vision and drive home the value of that investment to the public.  That oversight lead to consumer pushback and increased the deployment challenges.   

What's the right way for a city to get started?

Success comes from focused effort. Understandably, most city leaders are focused on too many initiatives to truly drive a protracted smart city effort. Plus, there is always an election cycle risk of a city leadership change. As a result, it seems prudent for city leaders to identify professional outsourcing providers who will shepherd the smart city initiative by applying passionate focus on the project and bridging the risk of regime change which may otherwise derail progress.