How Smart Grids Could Shape the Cities of the Future

Intelligent use of data could transform how we live and work. We look at how technology could improve commutes, cut energy consumption and reduce waste

With their traffic-clogged roads, fumes and mobbed transit systems, our metropolises can seem pretty stupid at times. Take a cab in central Lima, hop on the London Tube at 8am or walk around Beijing on an overcast day and it takes a leap of the imagination to buy into the idea of a “smart city”.

Perhaps that’s why no one can say exactly what one is. A report published in 2018 by McKinsey & Co says it’s a city that “puts data and digital technology to work with the goal of improving the quality of life.”

This means faster commutes, carbon-kind streetlighting, cleaner air, water consumption tracking and intelligent waste management. According to the report, smart tech could also cut crime, empower citizens and extend and save lives.

“‘Smartness is not just installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations,” it says.  “It is about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.”

Power to the People?

Underpinning the virtual grid is a tangible one – a smart energy network to power and connect all the elements.

“A smart grid will be a backbone for both the smart city and smart transport,” says Dr Hongjian Sun, associate professor in Smart Grid in Durham University’s engineering school.

“Smart cities and smart transport need an energy supply. Without it, they simply will not work. For example, the smart city idea has focused on sensors – for IoT, lighting and parking. These systems cannot work if there are power blackouts, as they rely on electricity as well as communications and infrastructure that need power. 

“Future transport does not only require power to do the charging, but also vehicle infrastructure powered by the grid too.”

When smart meters were launched a decade ago, the sell was that they empowered the consumer by means of handy information. But the far more ambitious smart grid idea involves local governments, utility firms, scientific research institutions, lawmakers and many others. In Spain, where rollout of smart meters in homes was completed in 2018, the lead agency FutuRed brings together 127 entities.

A Smart Home

All this conferring and data is, nonetheless, still aimed at homeowners. The houses of the future won’t have a single umbilical cord to one central source but will sit at the centre of a complex of suppliers – such as an on-site wind turbine, solar panels and perhaps hydro, waste-reprocessing or geothermal plant. 

In Germany, around 1.7 million decentralized generating plants such as wind turbines and photovoltaic plants now feed energy into the electricity grid.

Homeowners can manage their consumption not only according to need or whim but with an eye on real-time pricing, carrying out domestic activities – washing dishes, drying clothes, charging phones and PCs – during lower-demand, lower-cost hours.

The smart meter becomes a tool to help governments integrate climate-friendly energy systems, keep engineers abreast of cutouts and repairs, and reduce demand and energy bills. 

When might all this happen? Well, it depends if you live in a new town or a medieval city, in a wealthy country or a developing one. It also relies on governments investing heavily in the long-term. Smart city evangelists say 5G mobile networks, now being rolled out globally, along with big data and the IoT will power the revolution.

According to a recent Brookings Institution report “With 5G, governments, industry, communities, and individuals will have the connectivity, capability and agility to meet many of the challenges the world faces as we work towards ensuring the lasting protection of the planet and its resources.”

While the current  UK Government has not committed to early promises to provide to full fibre broadband to all households by 2025, smart homes could still be a real thing for city dwellers within the next decade.

Carbon-Reducing Cars

In May, GM and Honda announced they were jointly conducting research into smart grid and electric vehicle (EV) interoperability. 

Dr Stephen Hall, a researcher at the University of Leeds and author of The Innovation Interface, sees the link as vital to a greener future. He said: "Smart meters… pave the way for new energy tariffs which will reward drivers for charging off-peak with cheaper power. 

“They can also enable EV owners to be even more environmentally friendly, by matching charging with the greenest electricity on the system. Putting electric vehicles and smart meters together offers us an incredible prize, sustainable driving, which as a car fan and environmentalist is really exciting.”

Could the smart grid accelerate EV uptake? Research by Populus on behalf of Smart Energy GB – the body set up to promote UK smart meters – found that more than a third of drivers (34 percent) would be more interested in buying an electric vehicle if they have a smart meter. One third (33 percent) would be more likely to purchase an electric vehicle if they could programme it to charge automatically at home when energy is cheapest.

Is the Smart City Really That Clever?

Cities are home to more than half of the world’s population, and are expected to add another 2.5  billion new residents by 2050. 

Those hoping to install and manage smart technology – firms like BT, Cisco, EDF, Ericsson and Huawei – are busy developing myriad systems, from “clever algorithms” to harness data about our habits and sensors that track our evening strolls to lockchain technologies that cut out a central data manager to make key decisions.

The corporations say they need fast, future-proofed systems to enable them to quickly restore power after disturbances, improve security and reduce peak demand. 

But such avid analysis of our behaviours raises issues to do with surveillance.

With all the smartness concentrated in machines, will there be mass unemployment? If our cities go smart, will that leave the countryside feeling dumb? 

Smart energy is coming to us faster than we can debate it. From Leeds, where a hydrogen-based system - allegedly part of “the world’s largest project to reduce carbon emissions” - is being developed, to Burlington, Vermont in the US, which sources all its power from wind, solar, hydro and biomass, the grid is changing. 

It could be a network of equals – or a labyrinth of losers and winners. As well as providing us with energy, a smart grid could link us up to smart healthcare, smart security, smart wealth and productivity, smart parking, smart pollution monitoring and smart elections. 

Will we feel a greater sense of belonging? Will life be improved? Or should we be wary about governments and private suppliers knowing where we are, what we’re doing, and just how fast our heart is beating?