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Girding the grid: The missing piece of the smart city revolution

Three and a half billion people live in cities around the world today, and this number is expected to nearly double by 2050. The rapid pace of urbanization, coupled with advancements in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and sensors, is driving a smart city revolution. From San Diego to Barcelona, the latest IoT technologies are tackling pollution, traffic congestion and crime — just to name a few.

A fundamental key to scaling and advancing these IoT technologies comes down to a city’s ability to transport reliable, affordable and clean power. But many developed nations — particularly the United States — are still using electrical grids constructed in the 1950s and ’60s with 50-year life expectancies. Our grids are not only out of date, they were built to manage a uniformed flow of electricity primarily from coal, petroleum and natural gas. The introduction of wind and solar energy, which ebbs and flows based on weather patterns, creates new stresses the grid was not designed to handle.

Combined with an uptick in extreme weather, the U.S. is experiencing a steady rise in blackouts. If this continues, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that U.S. gross domestic product will fall by a total of $819 billion by 2025 and $1.9 trillion by 2040. Furthermore, it predicts that the U.S. economy will end up with an average of 102,000 fewer jobs than it would otherwise have by 2025 and 242,000 fewer jobs in 2040.

While significant updates to our electrical grid infrastructure are needed, there are several emerging technologies that cities can start integrating right away to help power a more cost-effective, reliable and secure grid.

Digital twin

The heart of a smart city is its ability to anticipate a problem before it happens. Through digital twin technology, we can create digital replicas of physical assets to continuously learn from multiple sources and share what they learn with other people and machines. By combining sensor data, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, digital twins build a bridge between the physical and digital worlds, providing a holistic view of the entire asset network.

Through simulation capabilities, digital twins can uncover historical behavioral patterns that show when, how and why a grid breaks — in turn, allowing cities to prevent and more quickly recover from power outages. It also allows cities to test multiple scenarios to better prepare for growing urban populations, extreme weather and more renewable energy sources coming online.

Energy storage

While we’ve made huge technological strides over the last decade in increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of renewable energy production, the challenge has been how to reliably transport and distribute renewables given our current infrastructure.

To ensure a continual and reliable flow of energy, the grid must carefully manage electrons to ensure the right amount of electricity is on the grid at all times. Too much or too little and there’s a blackout. But what happens when the wind stops blowing or the wind turbine produces more electricity than consumers need at any one point in time? This is where energy storage comes in.

When production outpaces consumption needs, there is excess energy. Rather than allowing excess energy go to waste, battery storage can capture the energy for later use and protect the grid from blackouts. In contrast, when the wind is not blowing or the sun isn’t shining, energy storage can serve as a backup to ensure a consistent flow of energy from renewables.

The challenge: Current battery technology can only output electricity for a few hours. In contrast, a peaker power plant can run as long as power is being fed. Similar to the automotive industry, utility companies now have access to transitional technology which, with its digital control system, blends electric and gas power outputs into a continuous energy flow and minimizes battery degradation, which is key to making battery technology cost effective for the long haul. So far, this has enabled gas peaker plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution by 60%.

Smart city technologies are already changing the way we live, work and play in many parts of the world. We have cities filled with lights that fight crime, thermostats that adapt to human behavior and cars that talk to each other. This would have sounded like a utopian pipe dream to my dad growing up in the 1950s. Fast forward more than 60 years and a lot has changed. However, in order to fully realize the benefits of a smart city revolution, we need a strong foundation and it all starts with a modern electrical grid.

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