Ready for GOOD news? How to fight climate change while saving money

Thu, 2016-01-14 13:21 -- Kevin Ebi

There's a dangerous misperception about fighting climate change. Most people assume that it will cost millions if not billions. In reality, many climate measures SAVE money. That's because many of the best tactics involve saving energy, thereby saving money.

Other climate measures revolve around adaptation and resilience. But even here the long-term economic consequences are positive. When Chattanooga put in high-speed fiber and a self-healing electric grid, the city got big savings from reduced outages. And they also documented tens of millions of dollars in new investment and new jobs, since companies want to locate where they can get ultra-reliable power and ultra-fast broadband.

Sure, there are upfront costs that have to be managed, but there's plenty of good news there as well. First, many climate-positive projects have a rapid payback. Switching to LED street lights, for instance, can often pay back in three years or less. From then on, the city can use those savings to finance other things.

And in many cases, you don't need to come up with the cash up front. More and more smart city suppliers will cover the capital costs themselves, then pay themselves back over a period of years from the savings. 

I know that many of you are under severe pressure to step up your climate game. Just realize that those mandates could be a blessing in disguise. They could be the impetus to embark on measures that will save your city money while helping the planet get healthy. — Jesse Berst

If climate change isn’t impacting your city yet, it soon will. Droughts. Wildfires. Rising sea levels. Many cities are already struggling to respond to these and other changes. Many more soon will.

So who’s in the best position to do something about it? You.

We asked Council partners in several different areas — from sustainable energy to water and beyond — and tell us that 2016 will be the year that cities take the lead in addressing climate issues.

Not the federal government. Not some global organization. Cities.

In the words of Council Lead Partner Bechtel, 2016 is the year that “non-state actors, especially cities and companies, will lead the path to a low-carbon economy.”

Fortunately, there is hope. New technologies and better analytics are coming together to allow cities to make a bigger difference.

Big data means big innovation
One key theme in our partners’ forecasts is that this will be the year that advances in data processing and analytics will help cities better devise strategies to make even bigger impacts.

Writing for Council Lead Partner GE, technology advisor Jim Carroll says, “There is a tremendous amount of investment in creating a two-way, intelligent and interactive grid. This changes everything, allowing us to more easily accommodate and utilize the energy production occurring in a more distributed world.”

Council Lead Partner Schneider Electric adds: “With more and more meters and power-consuming devices connected to the Internet, the ability to use Big Data to shape power use will augment human decision-making, and in some instances supersede it, to optimize sustainable outcomes.”

Doing more, yet emitting less
It’s one thing to cut emissions, but to do that while generating more power is another.

“While we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all quarters, we must do so understanding that energy demand will continue to increase throughout the 21st century as the world’s population grows,” says Schneider Electric. “We must also create renewables-based energy solutions for the more than 1.1 billion people worldwide who currently have no access to energy.”

Carroll writes that the Moore’s Law of computing — that processing power doubles while the cost is cut in half every year — is now starting to appear in the renewables market as well. And this rapid innovation is likely to have a rapid payoff. A 2015 Deutsche Bank report predicts that zero-emission solar power will achieve grid parity in 80 percent of the global market by 2017.

Guiding businesses and consumers
Of course, conservation is a key part of any sustainability conversation, and the Internet of Things will play a bigger and bigger role in that.

“In homes across the world, the Internet of Things will enable energy consumers to build their own micro-climate monitoring systems, and better manage their personal energy infrastructure usage,” according to Carroll.

“Consider this: it’s entirely feasible today for someone with just a little bit of technical knowledge to build their own local micro-climate weather monitoring system. Now imagine that you can link it to your intelligent home energy thermostat, one of the fastest-growing home-based IoT categories. Go a step further — add some solar, wind or biomass energy-generation capability — and link your own personal Big Data to that technology, in order to come up with the most optimal time to generate your own power.

“Expand that to what’s possible in the industrial sector.”

And, today, we’re only seeing a tiny slice of the potential.

“Technology-driven sustainability gains are being amplified by widespread Internet connectivity and the advent of the Internet of Things, the cornerstone of “smart” homes, buildings, manufacturing plants and cities,” according to Schneider Electric. “In the next five years, two billion more people are expected to gain access to the Internet, but so, too, are 50 billion machines!”

The role of cities and utilities
The technology is arriving and it’s developing fast, but it needs someone to drive it to its potential. You — cities and utilities — are in the best position to maximize its benefits.

“In the age of the Internet of Things, I believe utilities have a unique opportunity to take a leading role in the smart city movement,” says Russ Vanos, Vice President Global Software, Services, and Smart Cities of Council Lead Partner Itron. “Utilities, through their investments in smart grid technology and IoT-ready networks, can leverage these technologies to drive energy efficiency, water conservation, and reduce carbon emissions, while also providing a platform to make their communities more livable and resourceful.”