The Smart Grid Will Transform the Way Your City Works
Urban populations grow larger every day. Researchers predict that nearly 75% of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2050. As a result of this continued growth, there’s a need — and a demand — for cities to build smarter infrastructures to ensure reliable operations and provide consistent, sustainable energy.
In the digital age, cities are finding technology can help solve problems more quickly.
One of the biggest advancements in this area is smart grid technology. In simple terms, the smart grid is an advanced type of power grid, which is the system used to distribute electrical power throughout a certain region. A smart grid is different, however, in that it actually allows consumers to participate in the distribution of energy, rather than just passively utilizing energy resources.
Changing Consumer Behaviors
“When we’re talking about the smart grid, the focus is on information -– data -– and the new interaction, engagement and informed decision-making that data enables, as opposed to the technology itself,” says Michael Valocchi, vice president of global business services at IBM, one of the leading multinational technology and consulting corporations. IBM operates some of the most complex smart grid implementations in the world.
“The infrastructure essentially operates in three layers,” Valocchi tells Mashable. “There’s a bottom layer that encompasses new devices or hardware, like sensors on the grid and meters installed at homes, that can measure and monitor grid activity in ways that weren’t possible a decade ago. The middle layer is comprised of information technology systems that gather all the data points being captured by the bottom layer and delivers them where they need to go. The top layer is where all of the gathered data is analyzed, translated and presented back to stakeholders.”
According to Valocchi, IBM has always seen itself in an integration role with smart grid technology. “We’ve never made the hardware or devices that monitor and collect data. Instead, we function at the integrator level from a software and services perspective, making all the parts and components work together to create a grid that’s more intelligent, and therefore more beneficial to the consumer and utility,” he says.
The smart grid can also educate consumers and help cities change overall behavior toward energy. “Essentially, the biggest impacts for consumers are greater awareness and increased information,” Valocchi says. “The smart grid has introduced consumers to a level of awareness they’ve never had before regarding energy usage. Instead of being passive, the smart grid has elevated energy use to become part of consumers’ everyday conversations.”
From a consumer perspective, actually thinking about how people use energy is an important step in optimizing energy use. Since the smart grid presents more insights to consumers than they’ve ever received before, they have the knowledge to make different decisions about energy consumption. “Ultimately, the behavior adaptations driven by this increased awareness and information lead to greater grid reliability and stability, though that’s a benefit that’s less noticeable to consumers when the grid functions properly,” Valocchi says.
In addition to increasing efficiency, these innovations could address problems emerging from dated infrastructure itself. On July 30, 600 million people went without power in India because of three power grid failures, in what was possibly the world’s biggest blackout. Smaller-scale power failures are common in India because of the poor quality of its infrastructure. Could a smart grid prevent something like this from happening again? It’s very likely.
“Almost half of the electricity generated in [India] is lost on its delivery journey to homes and businesses,” Valocchi says. “A smart grid could reduce this loss and prevent crises like this from occurring in the future by providing digital intelligence to help plug the holes.”
Since everything can be monitored and controlled in real-time with a smart grid, sensors can identify damaged infrastructure so it can be fixed quickly. Smart meters and smart thermostats can automatically adjust energy consumption to the optimal levels for the current situation, and turbine speed can be adjusted based on analyzed data. A smart grid also allows new energy sources to be connected to the grid, so the energy supply itself can be better managed and controlled.
“The good news is [that] utilities and policymakers in India are looking seriously at technologies that enable smart grids, and a few pilot implementations are on the immediate horizon,” Valocchi says.
Power grids aren’t the only ways cities are getting smarter with technology, though. For example, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, implemented a high-tech control center to help prepare for events that regularly affect the city — specifically weather systems that affect the complex geography of the city.
Following a series of floods and mudslides that killed nearly 100 people in April 2010, the City of Rio de Janeiro announced a major overhaul of its operations. Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, turned to IBM to help design what is now the Rio Operations Center.
“With less than a year before the next rainy season began, they had to act quickly,” says Guru Banavar, vice president and chief technology officer of IBM’s Global Public Sector. “In just six short weeks, they had a technological and physical blueprint in hand, and construction began on the operations center, which opened at the end of 2010.”
Banavar explains that the operations center integrates and interconnects information from more than 30 government departments and public agencies within the city. This improves safety and responsiveness to various types of incidents, including flash floods and landslides. “Prior to the operations center, the city did not have a way to monitor emergency situations or oversee a coordinated response. With the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics on the horizon, the mayor sought a more centralized command center to predict and prepare for extreme weather and other public safety issues,” Banavar says.
In January 2012, a 20-story office building next to the municipal theater in downtown Rio collapsed. The operations center immediately alerted the fire and civil defense departments and worked with the local gas and electric companies to shut down service surrounding the building. Employees within the operations center also stopped subway service, directed traffic and alerted local hospitals, among other tasks. Banavar says that the operations center also used its own Twitter account to alert Rio citizens about the incident, which helped prevent further issues and minimize casualties.
The operations center uses a system called Deep Thunder designed by IBM, which helps the city of Rio predict the weather and model its anticipated impact.
“The system applies mathematical algorithms to understand the interaction of the atmosphere with the surface of the earth,” Banavar says. “Detailed risk assessments are developed using data from soil saturation levels, rates and flow of water runoff, the region’s topography and historical rainfall and flood records. With predictive information, police, fire and rescue teams are able to be deployed close to where problems are likely to occur. Staging and evacuation points can be identified and communicated more rapidly and with greater accuracy.”
During flood conditions, the operations center uses IBM analytics software to decide when to set off sirens, based on the predicted amount of rain within a given square kilometer. When the program predicts heavy rain, the center sends out text messages to different departments so they can prepare accordingly.
It’s tough to think about energy until the power goes out, and it’s difficult to stabilize and alert an entire city successfully when a disastrous event occurs. But with technological resources like these, we’re moving toward a time when thinking about urban infrastructure intelligently is second nature for governments, utility providers and individuals.
Does your city have a smart grid? Let us know in the comments.