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Smart cities and the smart grid

By Steven E. Collier


A veritable “perfect storm” of challenges and opportunities is profoundly changing the fundamentals of urban areas throughout the world. The driving force is the exploding growth of urban populations caused by both global population growth combined with dramatic relocation to urban centers. The United Nations predicts a near doubling of city dwellers by 2050 as the global population increases from 7 billion to 9 billion with the urban population to grow between 2.5 billion and 3 billion people in the next 30 years. 

This poses daunting challenges for planning, deployment, operations, and management of infrastructure, procurement and utilization of resources and provision of services. Within each urban area, it becomes more difficult to procure and manage the necessities of life and business—housing, transportation, water, fuels, electricity, communications, information, education, products, services—while at the same time maintaining and improving economy, efficiency, sustainability, reliability, security, health, and safety.

Fortunately, exponential improvements in the performance versus cost of electronics, telecommunications and information technologies are making it possible to address these complexities and challenges. A particularly interesting example is the advent of the “smart grid,” an especially important development since everything else in an urban area requires economical, reliable and sustainable electric power and energy.

In the U.S., for example, until recently, some 3,000 monopoly electric utilities exclusively provided power and energy to about 140 million metered customers from just over 10,000 generating plants through a nationwide patchwork of synchronous AC grids. The underpinnings of this century-old industry model had begun to fray in the 1970s and continued to erode ever more rapidly. Now, the grid is undergoing a radical transformation in which energy production, monitoring and control is moving away from the generation and transmission center to the distribution edges. If only a few percent of electric utility customers in the U.S. deploy these, there will be millions of them at the edges of the grid. This is happening even more rapidly in the majority of the world, the developing economies, which could not deploy the kind of monolithic, centralized grid infrastructure that exists in the smaller, less-populated developed economies. 

Over the next decade or two, throughout the world many millions of distributed energy production, storage and management systems will be deployed at the “Grid Edge”. There will eventually be hundreds of millions, even billions of end-use devices that are equipped with autonomous intelligence and automation to optimize the economy, sustainability, reliability, and security of the electric energy economy. How can something this complex and stochastic be accommodated? It will be made possible through the electronics, telecommunications, and information technologies mentioned above…more specifically, it will be via the Internet of Things. Ditto for the many other kinds of infrastructure and services in urban areas.

IEEE is mobilizing the expertise, experience, and efforts of its membership to help the world address these huge demands on land, resources, and services associated with urban population growth. In October 2013, the IEEE Future Directions Committee launched the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative. A global, multi-discipline, institute-wide effort to provide education, insight and expertise, it also creates a forum for collaboration by all entities involved in planning and management of urban centers. Guadalajara, Mexico, is the pilot municipality in the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative.

Electricity, electronics, telecommunications, and information technologies and applications are the center of competence of IEEE. Gilles Betis, chair of the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative, says, “IEEE has cultivated a powerful and talented brain trust that can assist municipalities in addressing all essential services that need to be managed in unison, to support the smooth operation of critical infrastructure while providing a clean, economic and safe environment for inhabitants to live, work and play.” 


Steven Collier is an IEEE smart grid expert whose broad experience includes being a consultant and executive with energy, telecommunications and information technology companies. 


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