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Ambition, Leadership, Collaboration: Utilities as Core Partners in Smart Cities

Among the core partners involved in driving the execution of a smart strategy for any city is the local electric utility

Realizing the promise of smart city solutions usually centers on the adoption of emerging technologies to achieve increased connectivity, livability and sustainability, but collective resolve and committed partnerships are no less important. Among the core partners involved in driving the execution of a smart strategy for any city is the local electric utility.

Any modern city with aspirations of becoming truly “smart” absolutely requires energy and communications infrastructures that are increasingly secure, flexible, green and resilient – prerequisites for building the smart city foundation.

Recognizing the new imperatives, today’s progressive electric utilities are contributing to smart city development primarily in three areas:

  • Decarbonization Investments. Since electricity is the core business of utility companies, investments in a more resilient, green and flexible energy system can serve as the backbone of the decarbonized, smart city.
  • Transportation. As increased traffic congestion burdens almost all major cities, and adds harmful missions, transportation electrification is emerging as a best practice. Utility leadership is needed to support the enormous impending shift to cleaner forms of power.
  • Communications. The ubiquitous, advanced and cyber-secure communications infrastructure that utilities continue to develop for grid operations can be leveraged to enable many aspects of smart cities such as advanced sensors, analytics, and connectivity. The impact of these leveraged communications assets is expected to multiply as utility networks expand in density and capability in step with the increasingly dynamic electric system.

The transformation of the electric system serving Chicago and Northern Illinois serves as a prime example of strong utility leadership and collaboration with communities, stakeholders and suppliers and a growing energy tech sector. ComEd, an electric utility serving more than 4 million customers in Northern Illinois, has been working with local stakeholders in the Bronzeville neighborhood to co-create a “Community of the Future.”

Through its initiative, ComEd seeks to serve as both connector and enabler—bringing together stakeholders and community members to identify priorities and opportunities to implement solutions that leverage the smart grid infrastructure that has been built throughout the region since 2012 through one of the most robust grid modernizations programs in the nation. The 111-year-old utility is intent on building upon the strength of the stronger, more flexible smart grid platform that has dramatically enhanced reliability and customer satisfaction.

Within the domain of climate, energy and resilience, ComEd is also driving significant energy efficiency at the community level, piloting distributed storage applications and building an advanced community microgrid all within the Bronzeville Community of the Future.

From ordinary homes to institutions that provide critical services, the microgrid will help all types of customers know their power will continue to flow even during an emergency. In addition, microgrids support the increased penetration of distributed energy resources like solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, which help reduce the carbon footprint of the entire region. Moreover, superior reliability and security of the electric grid encourages local businesses to make investments that support continued economic growth.

Through a Community of the Future initiative in the transportation domain, ComEd is collaborating with Innova EV (electric vehicle) on a smart city solution to provide an electric vehicle transportation service that fills the first/last mile mobility gap for senior citizens. Common trips taken through the service include visits to the local hospital, pharmacy, grocery store, and public transit stations. The added resilience of the microgrid also provides significant benefits for programs like this when transportation capabilities are critically important during emergencies.

ComEd also is leveraging its communications infrastructure in the Community of the Future by installing an interactive kiosk connected through fiber to provide residents and visitors with real-time city bus and traffic data, information on local attractions, and gigabit Wi-Fi access. The potential to help address the digital divide that exists in so many cities today makes this area of high-speed connectivity solutions, including fifth generation small cell technology, especially promising. Smart city features also include a broad range of sensor-based technologies that might leverage a utility’s wireless smart meter communications network to help monitor traffic or air quality.

Each of these initiatives illustrate how thoughtful partnerships and business model innovation can come together to move beyond pilot projects, but challenges remain. There will always be naysayers who see smart city concepts as overly ambitious.

Others suggest that the rhetoric around smart cities today actually sets the bar too low. Both groups would do well to recall that not everyone was onboard when President Kennedy set the nation’s sights on putting a man on the moon. Someday, in the not-so-distant future, when we live in vibrant cities that are smart, sustainable, and resilient, we will appreciate the ambition, leadership, and collaboration that will have paved the way.

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