Grid Modernization

Smart community projects “a natural” for public power, says Kelly

Smart community projects are “a natural for public power,” said Sue Kelly, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association on Feb. 11 in remarks made at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ 2019 Winter Policy Summit in Washington, D.C.

Kelly, who participated in a panel about issues tied to creating smart communities, noted a paper that the National Regulatory Research Institute had released in December.  NRRI’s paper said that local electric utilities are uniquely positioned to perform a smart city audit.

“I agree and I would add that even among electric utilities, we are uniquely well positioned to take on this message because guess what? You’ve met the city and it is us,” Kelly told the audience of state utility regulators.

In many cases, she noted, “we are the electric department of the city or we are utility boards or utility authorities.” Public power is “really, shall we say, already in the neighborhood.”

Kelly noted that public power is community owned and not-for-profit, “which gives us a different orientation on looking at these smart city initiatives.” In some cases, public power’s uniqueness makes public power communities more willing to do things and in others, makes them more conservative.

Many public power utilities have already installed smart meters, which in turn can serve as a platform for other technologies and projects. “We have quite a few members that have also done fiber and provide Internet service and broadband in their communities, which again is another platform that they can use for smart city initiatives,” Kelly said.

A report prepared for the American Public Power Association that was released in late 2018 offers a smart city roadmap for public power utilities to consider and details risks for public power utilities that sit on the sidelines and do not actively engage in smart city conversations.

“The idea was to help our members sit down and think systematically and holistically about whether they should be doing smart city initiatives and, if so, how to get started,” Kelly said. “What are the steps, what are the questions they should be asking themselves.” In the paper, “we defined a smart city as one that leverages digital connectivity and data analytics to drive intelligent decision making,” the Association’s President and CEO noted.

“Our goal from this is to better the lives of all our residents through mindful investments and deployments in technology,” she said. “Of course, when we do that, you have to ask whether a particular investment will improve the community and the lives of all the people in it.” This means “you have to know what the issues and concerns of the utility and the community are.”

There are several examples of cities working with public power utilities on smart city initiatives.

One example is San Antonio, which has been working with CPS Energy. In a late 2018 interview with Public Power Daily, Paula Gold-Williams, President and CEO of CPS Energy, detailed how CPS Energy has become an “enabler” of San Antonio as a smart city.

Other examples include Sacramento and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the city of Austin and Austin Energy.

Among the things that public power is doing when it comes to smart city activities is converting streetlights to LEDs and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. In addition, public power is working on microgrids and distributed energy installations.

“But, of course, what we have to ask is whether these are going to pencil out – will these actually be of benefit to the community,” Kelly said. “We don’t look at it as a rate of return item. We look at it as an investment in our community.”