Sustainable Cities Need Smart Investment and Policies

by Mar 17, 2020The Future of Cities Project

Jim Creevy, VP U.S. Government Relations, ABB

Jim Creevy oversees ABB’s U.S. federal and state government relations activities. He works on an array of public policy issues to drive ABB’s growth in the United States and promote the value of its industrial technology in electrification, motion, industrial automation, robotics and discrete automation. He serves on the Board of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) and is Chair of the National Association of Manufacturers’ International Trade Policy Committee. He is active at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and the Organization for International Investment (OFII).

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More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities, which consume more than two-thirds of the nation’s energy and account for up to 70 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Those figures are set to hold steady if not grow further, but the status quo for cities’ sustainability is not an option. We currently need 1.7 Earths to support current demands on natural resources, and that is clearly not sustainable.

So, what makes a smarter, greener and more sustainable city? Municipalities seeking to improve their infrastructure should target investments at technologies and projects that yield greater efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability over the long term. Investment in one of these areas often yields benefits in another, so there is ample opportunity for “value stacking.”

Perhaps the most obvious place to start with regard to efficiency is eliminating waste. Smart buildings control lighting, HVAC systems and even escalators to operate only when people are present in a given area. These controls and sensors conserve energy when a room, space, or piece of equipment is unoccupied. But there are even greater savings to be found in industrial environments, specifically in electric motors.

Industrial motors consume 25 percent of all the electricity used worldwide and they are everywhere, powering compressors in factories, baggage carousels in airports, and pumps in water systems. Control devices known as drives reduce energy used in motors by ramping speed up and down as needed, rather than running at full speed and restricting the motor’s output to achieve a desired level. This may not seem like much, but thanks to a principle in physics known as affinity laws, reducing a motor’s speed has a disproportionately large impact on the energy it uses. Cutting speed by half can reduce energy consumption to just 1/8th of the motor’s full-speed power consumption.

Pumping water is one of the most energy-intensive motor applications, and is a great example of an application where drives can make a huge difference. Municipal water systems can install drives not only to save energy but to gain greater control over their water system, reduce wear on mechanical equipment, and supply data to condition-based maintenance programs.


Major storms in recent years have brought cities’ ability to recover to the fore. This is most visible in the context of power systems, whether on the grid as a whole, or within the power distribution system of buildings, factories and campuses. Resilient power systems don’t need to be rebuilt after storms and can restore power to residents faster.

CenterPoint Energy serves 2.4 million customers in Houston, and following Hurricane Ike in 2008, upgraded its monitoring and control systems to an advanced distribution management system (ADMS). The system uses information from smart meters and field sensors to enable real-time grid monitoring and control, and is integrated with mobile workforce management software and advanced outage analytics to optimize storm response.

CenterPoint has observed a 23 percent improvement in power reliability and is able to identify outages 50-70 percent faster than with its legacy systems. Since installing the ADMS, CenterPoint has reduced outages by 200+ million minutes, enabled restoration of 1.5 million outage cases without customer phone calls, and saved consumers $20-25 million per year.

New York’s Consolidated Edison underwent a similar upgrade in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, replacing copper wires with a fiber optic communication network that is virtually immune to water damage. This effort also effectively digitized the substation, giving ConEd eyes and ears over their entire operation, a great example of the multiple benefits that often accrue to investments in sustainability.


Another example of such an investment is San Diego’s installation of a solar energy facility equipped with energy storage at the city’s main airport. Here again, digitalization played a key role, with software orchestrating the interplay of electricity between the panels, batteries, and local utility grid. The project increased renewable energy supply and, thanks to the storage component, allowed more of the solar farm’s output to be captured and used after sunset.

It’s important to recognize that energy is intertwined with other vital resources like water, electric distribution, and transportation. The World Bank estimates global water loss due to leaks and bursts at 25 to 30 percent, representing a $20 billion annual cost. Fewer leaks means less wasted energy in pumping and lower costs for consumers. Today, smart water systems use inexpensive sensors and advanced analytics to locate leaks to within 3 percent of pipeline length, minimizing costs and speeding up repairs.

Cities are of course interested in improving public safety, and there are ways to address this objective while reducing costs and improving the reliability of infrastructure. Methane leaks, for example, cost money and threaten safety, on top of contributing to climate change. Advanced leak detection technology available today is 1000 times more sensitive than traditional technology. It’s also so compact, it can be installed on vehicles and even drones. Real-time results from such systems can be used to estimate leak size, avoid false positives, and reduce manpower requirements associated with finding and repairing leaks.

Finally, transportation represents an enormous opportunity for cities to reduce resource consumption while improving quality of life. As we move away from fossil fuels, everything will be electrified, especially surface transportation. Electric transit buses are already more economical on a total cost of ownership (TCO) basis than diesel alternatives. Falling costs of batteries and other advances will soon make EVs the obvious choice for commercial and municipal fleets as well.

Electrification of transport goes far beyond road vehicles. Hybrid and all-electric ships are already at work, like the latest (all-electric) version of the famous Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls. Large ships now have the ability to draw power from shore while in port, eliminating the need to run their diesel engines and avoiding the associated noise and emissions. In Philadelphia, local transit operator SEPTA implemented a first-of-its kind energy storage system that captures the energy from braking trains and returns it to the rail network’s grid to power trains as they depart. The system even supplies services back to the local grid, creating a new revenue stream for SEPTA.

San Diego has been an early adopter of sustainable technologies, for example: traffic lights that use artificial intelligence to observe the flow of vehicles and adjust the lights’ timing to keep traffic moving, reducing emissions from stopped cars. Another intelligent system that controls 14,000 low-energy LED streetlights has built-in electric meters that measure real-time energy use at each light pole. The city subsequently has reduced spending by 60 percent on electricity and maintenance costs, saving $2.4 million on energy alone each year. Now, 4,200 of the light poles are being outfitted with sensors and a data platform to enable other services including parking efficiency, pedestrian and bicycle mobility, traffic optimization, environmental awareness, public safety, and emergency-response networks.


In terms of public policy, there are some specific reforms that can help cities (and all consumers) to realize the cost, resiliency, and sustainability benefits associated with investments like the ones noted above. For example, allowing utilities to recoup investments in technologies like smart meters, demand response programs, renewables, and energy storage from their ratepayers would put these investments on par with those made in transmission lines and substations. It would also yield knock-on benefits.

Jackson, Mississippi-based Consumers Energy captures 54 million data points every day via its smart meters, compared to the 22 million data points collected every year with a traditional, labor-intensive metering system. That data, used for billing purposes, is now used across a wide variety of applications to monitor power use across the company’s network and plan future upgrades.

Given that many of the policy mechanisms that impact cities’ ability to boost sustainability are implemented at the state or federal level, municipalities should look to their own operations to implement change. Cities can lead as a major market player, for example, by converting their own fleets to zero emission electric vehicles, investing in more robust and efficient water facilities, procuring clean power, and requiring municipal buildings to be LEED certified.

Cities can also act as conveners, bringing stakeholders together to develop integrated transportation plans, resiliency plans, etc., similar to how emergency management plans are established. They can also leverage bonding and other authorities to offer low-cost financing for local residents and businesses that want to invest in sustainable technologies.

While the outlook for the environment may often seem bleak, there are many proven methods already available for cities to make their energy systems and other infrastructure not only more sustainable, but cheaper and more resilient at the same time. This confluence of benefits will drive investments in clean, efficient energy, transportation, and water infrastructure that will enable cities to realize their sustainability goals.


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1 Comment

  1. The smartest, most sustainable and resilient polices can be the simplest. Get rid of zoning, allow cities to develop and grow organically, incrementally. Permitting should only be concerned with compatible use as it relates to hazardous chemicals, pollutants, and noise. Cities where living, working, shopping, and entertainment is mixed and sprinkled evenly over the landscape are happy cities. No daily needs should be more than five minutes away walking, and transportation networks should be non-separated, all-modal, non-signaled. The only rule of the road should be the more mass, and speed, the more liability the operator has in a collision. Probably can’t get there overnight, but it is worth a think!


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