In an effort to increase awareness about smart cities and the benefits they can create for the people who live in them, the Energy Equity Alliance (EEA) and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) hosted a webinar entitled “What Makes a City Smart?” Featuring EEA Chairman, former Florida State Legislator Joe Gibbons, AABE President & CEO Paula R. Glover, and a panel of experts representing local governments and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA), the message was clear – if next generation networks, supported by a smart and modernized electric grid, can be deployed in cities and towns across the country, those areas can experience more job growth and greater efficiencies in electricity and utility management.
“Smart cities allow consumers to engage in two-way communications with utility providers and local government,” said John R. Marks, IV, the former Mayor of Tallahassee, Florida and a former state utility regulator. Using “Digi-Tally,” a smart grid app that was implemented two years ago as an example, Marks explained how employing smart features allowed Tallahassee to offer it’s residents ‘lifestyle rates for utilities’ – a rate structures that changes based on a person’s lifestyle. “All people do not use electricity in the same way,” he said, and relying on technology to monitor service use allows for greater flexibility that helps people impact their rate payments based on their life style and use patterns. “There’s a big difference between the way college students consume services as compared to what a family of six might do.”
According to the panelists, smart cities rely on two primary inputs. Next generation, high-speed broadband that relies on fiber optic networks and a high-volume of “small cells” (micro-wireless towers often the size of a smoke detector, pizza box, or refrigerator unit) are used to transmit signals to a variety of connected devices. A robust energy grid, or several micro-grids, helps power the array of communications networks and technology involved in allowing two-way communications between consumers and companies, local governments, or utility providers.
“A feature is not a feature unless we can make it a benefit to our constituents,” said Gibbons while describing just what makes a city smart, and noting that $5.2 billion has already been invested in smart meters. “As we deploy smart cities,” he continued, “we need to make sure policies are inclusive, not exclusive.” Unless we have a modernized energy grid, Gibbons said, people will never realize the full benefit of things like smart LED street lighting that saves energy and supports public safety, smart transportation or smart buildings.
Elin Katz, Vice President of NASUCA and a Consumer Advocate for Connecticut, focused on the ways to ensure that smart city opportunities are equitably apportioned and not only accessible to people of means and influence.
“When you look at all the competing demands on the electric grid – integrating new technology, like solar panels and battery storage, building transmission, reshaping the grid from one to two way systems, storm response and resiliency – we have to ask, who’s going to pay the cost,” she said.
To Katz and her co-panelists, it’s not enough to put forth smart city proposals. Local and state level policymakers have to be mindful of how they are going to impact rate payers and benefit communities, especially those who are least able to afford high cost service, but can most benefit from the innovations smart cities enable. She framed it question simply: “How does this impact the single mom in Bridgeport, CT?” And that example can be transferred to any community around the country.
Community engagement is the key, Katz said, to understanding the real impact of smart city proposals and possibilities on people. You need to have local champions, she insisted, and have to go directly to people on the ground – neighborhood groups, state and local officials, and local businesses – to have a full understanding of the ways to best frame policies supportive of smart cities.
Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri provided a prime example of just how far a strong electric grid and modernized technology can go to providing meaningful benefits to an area’s residents. “Kansas City is part of a leading edge movement to use advances in technology to change the way cities work–from more efficient management of infrastructure like traffic signals, streetlights and stormwater systems to new ways to engage with residents and visitors,” he said.
One of the most important elements of these cities, he noted, is the ability to collect use data that can be analyzed and then applied to make smarter, better, and more efficient services. Though he made clear that concerns about consumer privacy, data and cyber security remain priority as we transition to smarter cities, Mayor James was unequivocal in his stance that “the most important part of the [smart city] initiative is the analytical platform.”
The future of smart cities remains uncertain in America, but one thing is for sure – with greater awareness and advocacy, smart policies can be created to ensure the deployment of innovative new infrastructure that has life-altering benefits.