Smarter energy use needed for an urbanized planet

60 million people globally move into cities every year. Local governments turn to solar power and smart grids to power growing urban areas.

The shift from a manufacturing to an increasingly services-based economy in the West, together with increasing industrialization in the East, is luring around 60 million people globally into cities every year in search of employment and a better quality of life. As a result experts estimate that over $40 trillion dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure over the next 20 years.

This investment will include transport, housing, hospitals and other social amenities all of which will be reliant on electric power. Increasing the availability of electric power while limiting the effects of its generation on climate change means a greater use of renewables, the addition of which is placing greater pressure on grid systems already operating at their physical limits. To help resolve both the issue of financing alternative power generation and stabilizing the grid to ensure the electricity supply remains in step with demand, policy makers are looking to innovative technologies and new business models.

Solar panels installed in major cities

Last year, the New York Times wrote that the Federal Department of Energy financed a solar map of  New York city, an innovative approach which identified that two-thirds of  the city’s rooftops are suitable for solar panels and that together they could generate 5,847 megawatts, enough energy to meet half the demand for electricity during peak periods and 14 percent of the city’s annual electricity use.

A similar survey in San Francisco has contributed to the broadening use of solar power, increasing solar installations on private roofs from 551 in 2007 to more than 2,300 today. The Chinese city of Rizhao, north of Shanghai, has pioneered another innovative way of deploying solar panels. By funding research and development instead of end-user subsidies the city’s council was able to encourage the local solar industry to increase efficiency and lower unit costs. As a result, 99 percent of households in the central district purchase a solar water heater for no more than the cost of a conventional electric water heater, saving $120/year per household on running costs.

Innovative business models have emerged to overcome concerns about prohibitive investment costs. SunEdison in the US owns, finances, installs, operates and maintains solar panels for customers and charges them for the power in return, just as a traditional power utility does. Conversely, community led schemes, such as One Block Off The Grid and EnergyShare, are becoming increasingly popular ways for residents to pool their knowledge and resources to help generate or source their own renewable energy.

With greater use of renewables comes reduced reliability and greater grid instability, increasing the risks of failures and blackouts. To help mitigate these risks the electric grid will have to get “smarter”.

Smart grid for a smart city

Many of the grid technologies required to meet the challenge are already available. Some of these innovations, such as ABB’s HVDC Light technology have in fact created new segments of the power generation industry. Other emerging technologies to help make the grid more flexible and efficient as well as more reliable include:

    • Energy storage solutions, which would allow excess power to be used in less favorable weather conditions.
    • Power trading. A greater number of transmission interconnections across regions would help dissipate excesses and alleviate shortfalls in electricity supplies.
    • Energy demand response mechanisms, advanced metering infrastructure and intelligent controls for buildings help monitor and modulate energy demands reducing the strain on power networks.

The development of smart grid technology is already having far reaching impacts beyond utilities, affecting telecommunications and enterprise software companies, architects, builders, town planners and other sectors. In Stockholm, for example, construction has begun at the new Royal Seaport district, where a smart grid will link homes and offices as well as ships in the harbor to renewable energy (including solar and wind power) impacting many sectors with the joint ambition of creating a fossil fuel free district by 2030.

Urbanization is a global phenomenon that is influencing all aspects of the world economy from power generation through to power consumption. New technologies designed to limit both the environmental and economic impact of this global trend are emerging with the potential to transform not only our electricity networks but also entire industries in the process.

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Gregory Hollings

Working every day to produce stories that highlight ABB's innovations!
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