The Role of Utilities in Advancing Smart Cities
Explosive population growth along with economic competition, rapidly advancing technologies and environmental concerns are challenging cities across the country to become more efficient, adapt to new expectations and be better stewards of the planet. The electric utilities serving those communities are confronted with a changing marketplace they must adapt to while driving solutions at the same time.
At Seattle City Light, a municipally owned utility serving about 440,000 accounts in the greater Seattle area, including about 800,000 residents, three key initiatives are already underway that highlight the role utilities can play in advancing smart technologies, increasing economic productivity and reducing our impact on the environment at the same time – decarbonization, changes in outdoor lighting and support for electric vehicle charging.
City Light became an early leader in acknowledging climate change and supporting business practices to reduce utilities’ carbon footprints. Acknowledging this was an important first step in reducing the communal impact of this city that lies in the heart of the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Already the first utility to create a formal department to support energy conservation in the 1970s, City Light became the first utility in the nation to fully offset all its carbon emissions in 2005, including those created by power service vehicle trips, business travel and other operations. The utility has maintained that net-zero greenhouse gas emissions status each year since.
Among the carbon reduction efforts were selling in 2000 its share of a coal-fired power plant the utility acquired more than three decades prior, installing shore power connections for cruise ships that frequently dock in Seattle, buying hybrid work vehicles, continued energy efficiency incentives, and investing in biogas, solar and wind energy production. Deployment is now underway for Advanced Metering technology that will eliminate 200,000 miles of driving by meter readers and about 70 tons of carbon emissions from their vehicles. Advanced Metering also is expected to save the utility about $30 million over the next 15 years.
LED Street Lighting
Outdoor lighting presented a big opportunity for improvement in energy efficiency.
City Light owns and operates more than 90,000 street and area lights throughout its service territory and since 2007, the Utility has been converting these from high-pressure sodium fixtures to energy efficient Light Emitting Diode (LED) fixtures.
The utility has already upgraded all standard cobra-head streetlights on residential and arterial streets throughout its service territory - about 75,000 streetlights! - and is now working to replace decorative and customer streetlights as well as the more than 5,000 leased security lights. Those changes have cut the lights’ energy consumption by more than 60 percent on average, which is saving the cities of Seattle, Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Burien, Renton, Tukwila, SeaTac, Normandy Park and King County a combined $2.5 million a year in operating costs. It also reduces the pressure to purchase additional electricity to meet demand – energy that might come from gas or coal-fired power plants instead of the clean power from City Light’s hydroelectric dams.
A critical element in the success of this program was engaging the community as key decision makers prior to any mass roll out. Throughout the City there were community meetings, demonstration pilots and input surveys followed by adjustments in lighting products being considered for the program. The feedback from the community was that they had a voice in something that was to impact them directly and on a daily basis, and they were heard.
City Light’s experiences were shared through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium, which helped to encourage hundreds of other utilities across the country and beyond to adopt LED street lighting.
Electric Vehicle Growth
Electric Vehicles present an outstanding opportunity to decarbonize a significant portion of the transportation sector while also replacing for the utility some of the energy demand and revenue that is being lost to customer-owned solar panels and energy efficiency programs. However, the shift in utility owned infrastructure presents its own challenges for a 110-year own utility imbedded in an even older municipal bureaucracy.
On several fronts City Light is actively working to support the buildup of electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE) – both utility owned and privately owned - to support the fast-growing adoption of EVs in the region.
The utility installed the first two publicly available fast-charging stations placed in the public right-of-way in Seattle and is working to install 18 more across its service territory with a preference for neighborhoods that private companies might overlook.
In addition, the utility is charged with significantly increasing the number of fast charging stations throughout the city by working cooperatively with private industry in the establishment of private charging stations. A number of these service providers have already begun installing these with projections for installing hundreds of publicly available charging stations by the end of 2019.
A pilot project is being developed to offer home-based charging stations to over 200 customers as a service, which could lower the cost of entry for people who are considering the EVs. And the Seattle Municipal Tower parking garage has been equipped with nearly 200 charging stations for electric vehicles to service utility and city fleet as the city converts to electric vehicles its fleet. Similar steps are being taken for fleets across the city.
These successes demonstrate some of the positive changes utilities can drive on behalf of customer service, efficiency and environmental sustainability. They can be replicated in other areas to multiply the benefits. And there will always be room for making them even better.
Among the lessons learned from these efforts includes starting as early as possible and reaching out to customers, internal and external, to ensure successful outcomes.
As utilities look forward, even more opportunities await in the new world of smart grid and grid edge. It will be a long time before we fully understand the full benefits and challenges from these disruptions.
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Lighting infrastructure is a perfect example of futureproofing. As cities are swapping out traditional high-pressure sodium street lights with energy-efficient LEDs and smart nodes that can remotely monitor and control the lights, don’t just be thinking about a smart lighting solution. Think about the position those streetlights are in to support so much more, like intersection safety analytics, parking optimization, and gunshot detection.
The idea of multi-channel civic engagement and the role of the grassroots community marketer is being implemented by forward-thinking smart city leaders who understand the importance—and economic benefits—of giving their constituents a voice. More investments are being made into digital systems that reach and engage the public.
From an energy type standpoint, a city’s electric utility can make a big difference regarding which actions cities should undertake. For instance, a city in the service territory of an electric utility with ambitious plans to decarbonize its generation mix may want to focus greater attention on future emissions scenarios versus current emissions when making decisions on priorities. This would mean focusing actions on transportation, space heating, and industrial processes, since those would likely be greater contributors to emissions (vs. electricity) in such a future scenario.