Pittsburgh, San Diego city officials put utilities as major players in smart-city partnerships

Published on June 15, 2017 by Kim Riley

A smart city is powered by smart connections for street lighting, smart buildings, distributed energy resources (DER), data analytics and intelligent services, and smart transportation — the operative word being power, which is what electric companies are all about.

Electric companies, together with city officials, technology companies and a host of others, are major players in partnerships that are accelerating the growth of America’s smart cities. And the energy grid plays a critical role in helping cities reach their smart-city goals, panelists said June 13 during the “Taking Smart Cities to the Next Level” panel discussion, held at the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) annual convention in Boston.

“It is a growing trend across the country,” said panel moderator Patricia “Pat” Vincent-Collawn, chairman, president and CEO of New Mexico’s PNM Resources Inc., and the new EEI chairman of the board.

Smart-city partnerships, Vincent-Collawn said, provide numerous benefits for the city, residents, energy company and other partners, and push everyone out of their comfort zones into a new interconnected world.

“You can’t have a smart city without a smart utility,” said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer for the City of San Diego. “Without a utility partner, the city cannot be as smart as it needs to be.”

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is a member of Smart City San Diego, a multi-year collaboration across public, private and academic organizations working to improve the city’s economic development, ramp up energy independence, encourage consumers to use electric vehicles (EVs) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“In San Diego, we were broke 10 years ago and we needed to find efficiencies,” Graham explained, adding that when they needed a better platform across the city to drive changes and create better outcomes for the public, it made sense to partner with SDG&E.”

The first step taken was installing residential smart meters, which produce real-time data around customer energy use — not just for SDG&E, but for customers and then also for partners involved in the smart-city project.

A smart city essentially becomes a mega data collector starting at the smart meter. Then a variety of advanced technologies and analytics connected to the grid enable sensors to gather and analyze even more data. Sensors can be attached to anything — like street lights, buildings, etc. — by other partners that seek to collect and analyze data on a multitude of things.

In San Diego, for instance, General Electric next month begins installing cameras, microphones and sensors embedded with its sensing nodes technology on 3,200 city street lights. The smart nodes can detect where a gunshot occurred, for instance, or estimate crowd sizes, report on air quality and monitor both foot and vehicle traffic, among other information. The city plans to pass on the data to universities and entrepreneurs, who will develop new applications designed to help officials better manage city operations.

GE’s system is part of its $30 million LED lighting upgrade to 14,000 of San Diego’s roughly 60,000 street lights, a cost savings of $2.4 million annually. Graham said that in addition to supporting new smart city apps, San Diego hopes GE’s new street lighting network and grid modernization upgrades will create an innovation platform for other apps, opportunities and/or sustainability ventures.
In fact, the data a smart city uses can transform how city officials govern.

For instance, data might inform city officials’ decisions about everything from removing trash in a neighborhood to providing more safety or building new sidewalks in another. That’s why the electric utility is vital to the smart-city partnership: it owns widely deployed assets all over a city, which ultimately can’t get smarter without installing the sensors to gather the data to be analyzed for decision-making, panelists said.

It’s impactful, Graham said.

Being smart also goes beyond the technology, said panelist Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh.

“It’s not just about the technology. A smart city is about how you leverage it to improve people’s day-to-day lives,” said Ervin, who in his city government advisory position reports directly to the mayor and guides development of the city’s resilience strategy, which was released in March.

To tackle its aged-out energy infrastructure problems, Pittsburgh city officials formed a broad collaboration that included Duquesne Light Company (DLC), NRG Energy and Siemens, as well as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, to work with local businesses and nonprofits on a plan for the future.

The resulting smart-city initiative aims to move Pittsburgh toward having a series of district-scale microgrids — or grid of microgrids — that interconnect energy generation, transportation and communications, enabling the provision of high-tech infrastructure for universities, hospitals, data centers, communities and a city-owned EV fleet.

Rich Riazzi, president and CEO of DLC, which serves about 600,000 customers in southwestern Pennsylvania, said during the panel that the company decided it couldn’t “paint itself into a box” regarding how it thought about what it could offer customers.

These partnerships are important, Riazzi said, because it’s about providing what the customer wants; and customers don’t care who offers it or how it gets offered, they just want the services, he said.

Pittsburgh’s new cleaner, greener, more resilient energy plan also includes an eco-friendly component, Ervin said. Plans are being developed to build the Uptown Eco-Innovation District, where sustainability and environmentally friendly development would become the norm.

The energy and eco-district plans are part of Pittsburgh’s P4 Initiative, which prioritizes performance, place, planet and people in any planned development projects that will connect resources and initiatives already working in the city.

Being a smart city is “about a fight for the future,” Ervin said, and if you aren’t involved in like-minded partnerships to accomplish such goals, “you’ll lose.”