Human existence is becoming increasingly urban. The number of people living in cities worldwide more than doubled between 1950 and 2010, meaning that more than half (50.6 percent) of the world’s population are now city dwellers. That trend will continue in the coming century: The United Nations projects that by 2050 68 percent of the people on earth will reside in cities.
That proportion is even greater in the U.S.; 82 percent of Americans presently reside in cities, and by 2030 that figure is projected to rise to 87 percent.
This ceaseless influx of people into cities worldwide and in the U.S. puts an enormous burden on every facet of urban infrastructures, from utility services to the maintenance of law and order (not to mention natural resources: the U.S. alone consumes one quarter of the world’s energy and puts out more carbon-related emissions than any other nation). The concept of so-called “smart cities” has emerged in the past several years as urban planners, politicians and engineers search for ways to help cities rise to the monumental task ahead of them.
The smart cities concept posits that cities will have to upgrade not just their traditional infrastructures - like roads and utilities - but also their information systems. In the ideal smart city information and data are shared across systems and are used to optimize service delivery and to make all parts of the infrastructure as efficient as possible.
“All of these things tend to be somewhat siloed and somewhat separate,” says Donald N. Rickey, a senior vice president of infrastructure business for Schneider Electric at a recent industry event.
Smart cities were a recurring topic at the Schneider event, and as was pointed out time and again, there are two mutually dependent keys to building smart cities: Optimized data collection and efficiency, and increased efficiency in all system (it should be said here that, this being an event hosted by Schneider, the company offered numerous examples of the ways in which it is active in all aspects of creating smart cities).
First, there is the energy production and consumption aspect.
“We lack an aggressive stance on energy policy - we don’t have it as a country,” said Jeff Drees, Schneider’s U.S. country president. Drees called for the establishment of clear benchmarks for alternative energy production and emphasized that alternative sources of energy like shale gas - natural gas that is generally obtained through the controversial process known as fracking - combined with renewable sources like solar are the key to a sustainable American energy policy.
Fred LeBlanc, the power production manager for Burbank Water and Power in Burbank, Calif., said that the U.S. is approaching grid parity - the point at which alternative and/or renewable sources of energy cost as much to consumers as traditional coal-burning electricity (it should be said that how close we are to grid parity is widely debated, and the term itself is defined differently by different people). That would be good news for consumers because LeBlanc and others also said that the demand-pricing for energy - higher costs of per kilowatt-hour during peak hours - is also on the horizon.
But the energy side of smart cities has as much to do with management as it does production. The creation and retrofitting of buildings to make them as energy efficient as possible is a cornerstone practice of building smart cities, and tools that track and analyze the consumption of resources throughout the city-wide infrastructure are essential.
For instance, smart meters, help businesses and consumers alike keep better track of their energy use - and eliminate the need for human meter readers - while water systems can use sensors at different points in the system to determine where and how water is used and where it is lost through leaks. Installing control technologies into older buildings that allows facility managers to assess how and when energy is spent can reduce energy consumption in older structures by as much as 30 percent, said Drees.