Grid Modernization

Utilities and the smart city: Building better communities

As new technologies rise and fall, one constant seems to remain: Electricity is used to power “smart” devices. Beyond simply powering the technologies that make smart cities possible, utilities are a crucial player in any community’s smart city initiatives. From upgrading broadband service to fostering mobility, public power utilities explain how taking a lead in smart city projects improves their communities.

Smart is defining possibilities

“The one thing that’s wrong with ‘smart city’ is it implies that cities aren’t smart today,” said Paula Gold-Williams, president and CEO of CPS Energy in San Antonio, Texas. There isn’t one definition of a smart city, she said. Rather, “it’s a testament to the possibilities of what you want to do when you’re enabled by technology along the way.”

“It’s not important for the industry to think of a definition. It’s more important that we start to put solutions in the hands of customers,” Gold-Williams said.

“It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the East Coast or the West Coast. It matters what you put in your community, and, again, municipal power’s going to be well-positioned for that, and we know that that’s one of our value propositions,” she added.

San Antonio and CPS Energy are leaders in smart city efforts in the U.S. Earlier this year, global law firm Dentons announced Gold-Williams as a smart cities/communities think tank energy industry co-chair, along with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. The think tank will advise public and private stakeholders on what the firm sees as the 14 pillars of success for a smart city program. The energy pillar, chaired by Gold-Williams and Moniz, will look at how smart cities and communities incorporate a multidirectional grid and advance clean energy solutions that include a broad array of distributed energy resources.

Juliet Shavit, CEO of SmartMark Communications and a smart city subject matter expert, is the author of Creating a Smart City Roadmap for Public Power, a new whitepaper from the American Public Power Association. The paper explains that “smart has come to mean the intersection of digital with knowledge or intelligence.”

For a community considering a smart city project, Shavit advised that “there will always be newer technologies, faster internet speeds, more efficient transportation models, etc. Yet, taking the first step to identify the needs of your community is the foundation for your smart city roadmap.”

Smart is enabling quality of life

In Columbus, Ohio, the foundation for a smarter city is increased mobility. In 2016, the city won the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, competing against 77 cities nationwide for up to $40 million to “revolutionize their transportation systems to help improve people’s lives.” The city also received a $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. 

“A city becomes a smart city when you can integrate technology with people to make lives function better,” said Kristian Fenner, assistant administrator at the Columbus Division of Power.

“Our mayor believes that mobility is the great equalizer of the 21st century, and if we can provide equitable access to mobility for our residents, that will help us allow them to live their best lives,” explained Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for the city of Columbus. “When you look at many of the challenges we’re facing as the 14th-largest city in our country, whether it is the opioid epidemic, infant mortality crisis, or pockets of poverty, transportation and mobility is a piece of the puzzle for solving all of those problems.”

Braun and Fenner noted that electrification is an important component to the initiative.

“When you think about the future of mobility and transportation, there are a few key things we know it will be rooted in: Vehicles will be connected, they will eventually be autonomous, they will be shared, and they will be electric,” said Braun. “More and more automakers are announcing that they are moving toward producing all-electric vehicles. So, as cities, regions, states, and, frankly, the whole country, we need to think about how we are going to accommodate that shift in the transportation system.”

The city is looking into electrifying its fleets, supporting EV charging infrastructure, using self-driving vehicles, and equipping buses with technology that can integrate with traffic lights to reduce delays and congestion. Most importantly, Columbus is involving a variety of groups across the city, including health and human service agencies, to build a connected operating system that shares data to learn how to make these transportation options most effective for residents.

Smart is connecting

“We have a lot of really smart, digitally savvy customers in town,” said Steve Bernard, CEO of Cedar Falls Utilities in Iowa. The utility was one of the first in the country to invest in a high-speed internet system back in the 1990s, and Cedar Falls has since been called a “gigabit city” for further updates made to the network in 2013. Even though the current technology might be the envy of other cities, Rob Houlihan, chief technology officer at CFU, said the utility is now preparing for another upgrade — to 10-GB service.

Bernard says this drive for connectivity comes from the customers, and that CFU aims to stay ahead of what the community wants. “Part of our job is to provide them the tools and the infrastructure so they can figure out neat things to do with it,” he said. “They’re able to access a world-class broadband system here, at a reasonably low cost, and we think that opens up a lot of doors for our customers.”

In addition to providing the electricity for the town, CFU currently serves more than 14,900 dwellings and businesses with high-speed internet, telephone and/or television services. Bernard says the local school district is now the envy of other districts across Iowa, as CFU has allowed local schools to implement online learning initiatives, and connectivity in students’ homes has helped diminish the digital divide across the city.

It’s almost a necessity now in daily life to have a good internet connection,” said Bernard, who listed the myriad reasons customers tell him why they appreciate the service, from being able to work more efficiently to enjoying better entertainment experiences.

Bernard acknowledged that the service has also allowed CFU to be a smarter utility. For its electric services, CFU is able to connect through broadband to smart meters and remote switching gear, saving meter reading costs and helping minimize outage time.

Whether it is for utility purposes or for customer purposes, [the technology is] all dependent on the fiber system, which is highly reliable, so we want to be sure we maintain it and continually upgrade it,” added Bernard.

The city of Longmont in Colorado has also focused on building broadband connectivity in becoming a smart city. The city-operated internet service, called NextLightTM, was named the fastest internet service provider in the country by PC Magazine in 2018.

Susan Wisecup, acting general manager at Longmont Power & Communications, said that putting in the fiber connection resulted in a number of city improvements, from spurring economic development to making schools better and deterring crime. The service has also helped the utility, which does not have advanced metering infrastructure, in monitoring the electric system and analyzing and responding better during outages.

“Many years ago, we as a utility, and maybe as an industry, felt that we were the ones that had to come up with the smart home devices,” said Wisecup. She noted that the utility focus has instead been on creating the support infrastructure for those devices. “We don’t have to be the ones to invent or provide thermostats or [devices that] monitor water levels in your lawn … we just have the infrastructure in place that supports the private industry products out there.”  

The utility plans to implement tracking in its vehicles to improve service and efficiencies and is working with a downtown business group to foster an “innovation corridor” for technology businesses.

Smart is partnering

Gold-Williams described CPS Energy as an “enabler” of San Antonio as a smart city. Converting CPS Energy to a digital network and using AMI increased the amount of information the utility can access. This allowed CPS Energy to get to the preventive, predictive state of operations and look for anomalies so customers could benefit from advance maintenance planning.

The transition to digital was a foundational step to leverage potential benefits with other entities, and it formed the basis for a smart city or community. CPS Energy partners with the city of San Antonio and city entities such as San Antonio Water System, VIA Metropolitan Transit, and the San Antonio River Authority.

CPS Energy has been working with the city manager, mayor, and council members and discussing what San Antonio could look like if they could all look at customers from multiple prisms. Together, they are deciding what the foundation of their smart city could be, according to Gold-Williams.

The utility is talking about how to best optimize and centralize its data, removing sensitive personal information, to allow the community to put the data to use. “We’re going to be able to offer the business community another connected platform where people can come in from a tech perspective and help us create new apps, think about where we put new lighting systems in, and all of the things that come along with virtual reality and augmented reality, and on and on and on,” Gold-Williams noted.

At CPS Energy, “We’ve been diligent, and we’ve been the promoters of the partnerships and the supporters, and if somebody wants to talk to us about it, we’re there,” she said. “If they don’t want to talk to us about it, we go and introduce the concepts to them and start talking about the possibilities.”

Public power is in the best trusted position to promote partnerships, talk about possibilities, and build support to put options on the table. Public power can ask the community, “What do you want your smart city to be?”

San Antonio’s Office of Innovation has also been a key player in advancing smart city efforts. The office held a smart cities readiness workshop in March 2017 to discuss and develop a roadmap to San Antonio’s future. More than 100 participants, including CPS Energy, attended.

In January 2018, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced the creation of the Innovation and Technology Committee, to be made up of public and private citizens who would build on smart city solutions that modernize the way San Antonio tackles growth challenges. The committee was asked to assess the impact of emerging trends and technologies and recommend how to advance smart city goals by enhancing cybersecurity, promoting digital inclusion, improving mobility, expanding municipal broadband, and pursuing economic opportunity.

“We knew that for us to be successful, it takes an ecosystem, it takes all of our sectors working together,” said Smart Columbus’ Braun. From the beginning of the application process for the Smart City Challenge, the city worked with other public entities, academics in the area and the private sector, including the investor-owned utility that also serves customers in the city, and car dealerships to promote EVs. Braun pointed out that the city also engaged with residents through surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings to listen to and understand their specific needs.

Community involvement is also important for Longmont. “When we first began looking at the fiber side of things, we held focus groups [and did] lots of community outreach through many different sources so people were aware of what we were doing,” said Wisecup. In these and other initiatives, such as integrated resource planning, Longmont has held community town halls, conducted surveys, and provided opportunities for people to give feedback through social media.

We’re always trying to serve our customers and provide them what they need, and even what they don’t know they need or want yet,” said Wisecup. “By coupling electric and broadband together, we’re continuing to provide opportunities for the community and becoming more valuable to them. We continue to show that we are their neighbors, they’re our owners, and that we are the community.”

Smart is flexible

“At your base, you have to be flexible. We’ve learned that you have to be careful about technology planning — you have to be open for it, you have to look for it, you have to do pilots and see what else is going on,” said Wisecup. “And with technology, you have to be aware and searching, but you cannot home in on any technology that’s up and coming — you can’t hold onto it too tight — because things will change.”

Rob Houlihan, chief technology officer at CFU, agreed. “When we look at new technology, especially when we’re on the leading edge of it, it is hard to know sometimes when to pull the trigger. Because you might think you have really cool technology, but it’s either really expensive or it is not fully baked,” he said. “In a number of cases, we’ve delayed decisions just because there wasn’t enough certainty that the money would be well spent. We don’t just advance to advance; it has to make sense with our network, with our customers.”

Smart is sustainable

Smart cities are also about planning for future growth. This growth might be most acutely felt by midsized cities, which, according to the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge report, are expected to grow at three times the rate of the rest of the country over the next three decades.

Columbus’ Fenner noted that the Division of Power is making a concerted effort to increase the proportion of renewables in its portfolio from 20 percent to 50 percent within the next few years.

“As a municipal utility, we have always wanted to support the sustainability goals of our mayor,” said Fenner. “Yes, we can continue to deliver power as usual, how it has been for a hundred years, but we see that our customers and communities — they want to see renewable and sustainable technology, and they are driving this as well. We believe in evolving with what is being asked for in our community.”

This focus is about more than just using renewables. It also considers how the city can use energy more wisely. “It is all a circle — use less energy, make sure that it is renewable, and try to make sure our systems are working as efficiently as possible,” she said. As one example, the city switched to LED streetlights, and is working to add connectivity to make the lights “smart.”

“We also have to anticipate capacity. We need to be proactive in assessing areas we are serving, making sure our equipment and infrastructure can withstand the new loads that we will be taking on,” said Fenner, “making sure transformers are working properly, that our circuits are working to full capacity, so that we can take advantage of all the new technology that will be using our load.”

Smart is focusing on customers

Patti Austin, administrator of the Columbus Division of Power, acknowledged that focusing on smart city initiatives can be a challenge, especially for smaller utilities that face more urgent challenges concerning finances, infrastructure, or personnel. But “you have to make it a priority to get it done,” she said. “You have to keep your focus and look at where the next opportunity is every day.”

“We’re here for our customers. That’s our focus. We always go back to customer service, reliability, and low cost. You have to be innovative and look for opportunities and be open to all possibilities, but if you have those as your base, you will be successful,” advised Wisecup.