IoT Makes Cities Smarter

Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century, says John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations’ Population Division.

Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and according to the UN, that’s expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050. Leaders on every continent are looking at ways to make cities smarter to provide sustainable living for millions of residents.

Tokyo is expected to keep its place as the world’s largest city, with 37 million inhabitants forecast in 2030. Of today’s 28 mega-cities, sixteen are located in Asia, four in Latin America, three each in Africa and Europe, and two in North America. By 2030, the world is projected to have 41 mega-cities with 10 million inhabitants or more.

To prepare for the urban explosion, civic leaders know cities have to be smarter. A smart city is one interconnected by digital technologies to enhance performance and wellbeing, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to more effectively engage with its citizens.

Many cities are already on the move. Take Amsterdam for instance. A public-private partnership there has launched more than 40 projects ranging from smart parking to the development of home energy storage for integration with a smart grid. Barcelona, too, has been testing sensors on a wide variety of devices, from noise and air contamination to traffic congestion and even waste management systems.

Traffic systems and energy efficiency are two obvious targets for the Internet of Things in a smart city, says Victor Larios the volunteer leader of the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative Guadalajara Pilot in Guadalajara, Mexico. Cities use connected devices to improve traffic flow in real-time based on sensor data and social media signals to route traffic away from jams. Buildings and homes stocked with sensors enable better control of devices that consume energy, all linked by the IoT.

Cities are the centers of innovation and the people living in them want to be connected. Most cultures around the world are at a point where they cannot live without the Internet, Larios says.

In England, Bristol is being equipped with sensors and a high-speed fiber network to turn it into a laboratory for studying how big data can be used to tackle problems such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and to improve assisted living for the elderly and the city’s self-driving car initiative.

One component of a smart city that may come first is the smart electrical grid, which links utility delivery systems or grids via remote control and automation. From a coal-fired power plant to a solar or wind power installation to a home or business, the smart grid collects and communicates data for better operation. The meter reader doesn’t have to go house-to-house any more; instead, usage data is vacuumed up by the system.

A smart grid can pinpoint outages, wasteful usage, or use devices in the home to manage power demand and supply. With a smart grid, a utility can control individual devices or whole classes of devices with a click to manage supply and demand.

Utilities are using the IoT and smart, connected products to make individual homes part of the grid. Thermostats, water heaters, and electric vehicles can all be controlled to store and release energy to manage demands on the electrical grid.

For instance, Oklahoma Gas & Electric distributed 40,000 smart thermostats to its customers, which reduced peak demand for electricity so the utility can avoid building incremental fossil fuel power plants until at least 2020. Customers can program their usage preferences based on peak pricing signals sent from OG&E. Customers saved an average of $150 on their utility bills and the utility shaved 60 megawatts off its peak demand last summer compared to the year before.

“Smart thermostats have enabled our customers to automate their response to dynamic price signals and notifications and effectively reduce their peak consumption and the amount of their bill,” says Mike Farrell, senior manager of analytics and support, OG&E.

Pilot projects with NB Power in Canada and the Bonneville Power Administration in the United States have shown that smart-grid connected water heaters can help absorb excess power generated by wind farms and reduce demand for energy during peak use times. About 53 million homes in the U.S., or 42 percent of the total, use electric hot water heaters.

A tank-type water heater uses power for several hours a day to heat water in the tank, depending on the demands in the home. Water heaters equipped with remote controls allow the utility company to turn the water heater off and on depending on energy supplies.

For its wind energy program, NB Power experimented with 1,250 electricity customers, turning off their water heaters when energy use was high and the wind wasn’t blowing. Then the water heaters are turned on when wind energy is available and overall demand is lower.

Bonneville Power ran a similar program with 100 homeowners in Washington State. Their water heaters acted as power storage to manage the fluctuations of wind energy generation. The water heaters were equipped to communicate with the power grid and turn on and off according to grid conditions and the renewable energy available. However, homeowners were able to override the device at any time in case they needed hot water.

Automotive companies are also participating in the smart city evolution. Honda is among the electric vehicle makers collaborating on open standards to integrate charging stations and vehicles into the grid. Utilities could use the onboard batteries to manage electrical loads across the grid. Honda has already successfully tested the concept of a vehicle to respond to grid instructions based on grid conditions and the vehicle’s battery state.

Although many cities have long established infrastructures, sensors and interconnectivity are already bridging the old and the new to make life better in urban areas. To support millions more residents, cities simply have to be smarter to be sustainable. The Internet of Things makes it possible.

Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Filed under: Innovation, IoT Tagged: Internet of things, IoT, smart cities, smart connected products