Paving the Way for Lower Energy Consumption in Smart Cities

7 min.

The world is getting more urbanized

We live in an increasingly urban world, with more than half of the population residing in cities. Globally, urbanization is advancing at a rapid pace: it is estimated that around 3 million people move into cities every week. At this rate, the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is expected to reach 66% by 2050.

Urban living is normally associated with higher levels of literacy and education, better healthcare, greater access to social services, and enhanced opportunities for cultural and political participation. At the same time, urbanization poses sustainable challenges to socio-economic development and environmental protection. This is particularly relevant to African and Asian regions, where the pace of urbanization is the fastest.

Urban growth results in high energy consumption

Given the world’s trend toward urbanization, cities require continuous energy supply for their industrial and commercial activities, transportation, buildings and infrastructure, water distribution, and food production. The researchers found that cities consume 75% of global primary energy and emit between 50 and 60% of the total greenhouse gases. Electricity and heat production is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, followed by agriculture, industry, transportation, buildings, and other sectors.

If no mitigation actions are taken, the use of energy in cities will increase more than three times in 2050 to meet expected demands. This will leave a massive ecological footprint on our planet.

Smart cities offer smart energy solutions

Reducing energy consumption is a high-priority problem. Its solution might lie in the adoption of energy‑efficient technologies offered by smart cities. The smart city concept employs IoT sensors and other technology used to collect valuable data from various aspects of urban infrastructure: roads, bridges, rails, communications, water, power, major buildings, and many more. With the application of predictive analytics and data science, the collected data is processed to achieve efficiencies for service providers and to improve the quality of life for citizens.

Smart cities offer a number of solutions intended to optimize the use of energy resources, some of them being outlined below.

Smart grid

A smart grid is a way of integrating digital technology into the traditional electrical grid. This allows for two‑way communication between consumers and power suppliers. On the one hand, consumers might keep track of how much electricity they use via a dedicated application. On the other hand, energy companies might communicate with clients to inform them about the optimal time to run their washing machine, for example, when there is enough power in the grid or when the price for energy is lower.

Smart grids are equipped with sensors that gather and transmit data about energy supply and use with the aim to improve efficiency, minimize environmental impact, and reduce overall costs by managing and controlling appliances and systems more effectively.

The benefits of a smart grid are substantial:

  • Reliability. With the smart grid technology, there will be fewer and shorter electricity outages due to enhanced network monitoring. Moreover, a typical smart grid is self-healing, which means faster restoration of electricity after outages by automatic rerouting. This is especially needed in case of a natural disaster when access to light, heat, and communication is crucial.
  • Cost savings. Smart grids reduce the costs associated with the production and distribution of electricity for energy providers, in addition to reduced power outages. From the consumers’ perspective, it provides an opportunity and motivation to optimize electricity consumption and reduce the bills.
  • Environmental health. Renewable energy sources present a challenge to traditional electricity grids because they are weather-dependent and hard to predict. Smart grids make it easier to integrate renewable power sources, such as wind or solar energy that don’t emit greenhouse gases. It is estimated that this might cut air pollution from the electric utility sector by as much as 30% by 2030 and improve environmental health considerably.

Advanced metering infrastructure

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), or smart metering, is closely associated with smart grids, but these terms should not be confused. The smart grid is a broader concept on energy delivery improvement, informed consumption and environmental impact reduction, which doesn’t just mean smart meters.

A smart meter is an electronic device with the in-home display that provides near-real-time data about energy usage to both energy providers and energy consumers. It empowers end users to be more aware of their energy consumption and manage it better. The research reveals that people who own smart meters become more energy‑efficient: 85% of smart meter owners have changed the way they do things around the house to use less energy, for example, they turn off lights in an empty room and don’t leave electrical items on standby.

Furthermore, smart metering allows utility companies to deliver as much energy as it is required for a particular region, thus providing considerable operational, customer service and financial benefits. This is pushing countries to start deploying a growing number of smart meters: in the United Kingdom, for example, the government announced its intention to roll them out in all homes across the country by 2020.

Efficient public lighting

Efficient public lighting is yet another area that provides space for reduced energy consumption in smart cities. Here, a possible solution is to adopt LED-based street lights enhanced with smart controls and motion sensors allowing automatic switching-on and off when necessary. Currently, street lighting accounts for 40% of a city’s overall electricity consumption, but the combination of LEDs with smart controls will allow cities to reduce up to 85% of energy consumption.

Intelligent street lights are connected to central control systems via different communication networks to allow imparting data to the management server. This makes it possible to monitor and regulate street lights, including:

  • changing light levels, for instance, increasing the lighting at a place where accidents occur or at the time when the weather conditions are poor;
  • conducting remote monitoring with the aim to detect problems with LEDs and raise a service alert;
  • measuring electricity consumption more accurately for every street light, so that cities could only pay for the power they actually use.

The benefits of the smart lighting infrastructure might go beyond the improved illumination and energy savings. Different sensor types are already being integrated into connected street lighting to allow controlling air quality, noise, temperature, humidity, and radiation for enhanced environmental monitoring purposes.

Challenges of smart energy adoption

With such a huge potential of the smart city technology to resolve energy consumption issues, the obvious question to ask is why has not it yet been widely adopted? There are three main stumbling blocks to smart energy solutions deployment: security issues, lack of policies and consumer awareness.

  • Security issues

As with any IoT technology, security is the main issue of concern. Hacking into a smart grid might cause electricity outages and cost millions to individuals and businesses. The data collected from the smart meters might be a subject of cyberattacks as well, providing detailed information on consumers’ energy usage patterns and their overall lifestyle violating their rights to privacy.

  • Lack of policies

Lack of smart energy policies is the second challenge faced by energy companies. Without the right policy and standardization put in place, it is impossible to ensure interoperability and safety of energy efficient systems. Uniform standards need to be defined to set requirement for smart energy solutions implementation and general operations, which is a key to an efficient energy system.

  • Consumer awareness

Educating people about smart energy is essential for its acceptance. Lack of consumer awareness creates myths, such as that the installation of smart meters in homes might cause health problems associated with electromagnetic radiation fields. While there is no confirmation of this, the movement against smart meters rollout is gaining ground in some countries. Consumer awareness programs might help to inform people about the benefits and impacts of the connected energy technology.

To sum it up

The smart city initiatives towards lower energy consumption include but are not limited to smart grids, smart metering, and connected public lighting. They are paving the way for lower energy costs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and improved urban livelihoods as a whole. The energy sector already began implementing sensors and networks to interconnect all objects to one another, thereby driving the expansion of the internet of things. Still, new forms of urban energy challenge traditional utility business models and require well-thought-out measures to be taken.