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Smart Cities and Smart Grids

May 8, 2015


In previous articles about smart cities, I have stressed the importance of implementing “people-first” strategies. After all, the whole point of smart city initiatives to is to make urban environments better places to live and not simply to make the systems found there run more efficiently. Irving Wladawsky-Berger notes, “Cities are centers of social interactions, commerce, entertainment and many other human endeavors.”[1] If you take that people-first approach as a given (which, unfortunately, too many planners don’t), then you can start talking sensibly about urban systems and which of them are the most important. In his introduction to a guest editorial in Smart Grid News written by Jim Anderson and Mark Leinmiller, Jesse Berst (), Chairman of the Smart Cities Council and Founding Editor at Smart Grid News, wrote, “By now, you probably know that cities all over the world are embarking on smart city initiatives. Sadly, many of them fail to understand the critical importance of energy and water infrastructure to their aspirations.”[2] In the editorial, Anderson and Leinmiller assert:

“Although the smart cities discussion has been dominated by the IT and software market, urban planners should be operating an infrastructure first strategy. To support a growing and aging population, the framework of the city — the electric grid, water management system, commercial buildings, traffic management systems, etc. — becomes most important. And intelligent energy use is one of the central components to achieving all of a smart city’s goals.”

What Anderson and Leinmiller call an “infrastructure first strategy,” I would call a “system first” strategy, because the term “system” evokes the idea of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. It’s clear from their statement that their recommended strategy starts with people in mind (i.e., the growing and aging population). I agree with them (and Berst) that the most important systems to start with are electrical grids and water systems. Those systems are the sine qua non of functional cities. Without them there is no growth and little hope for improving the quality of the conditions for people living there. Anderson and Leinmiller conclude:

“The smart grid is seen as the true backbone of a smart and energy efficient city. It allows residents and city officials to understand their energy use and make smarter decisions going forward. However in a smart city, water systems are a little-known, but equally important piece of critical infrastructure.”

In this article, I want to focus primarily on the smart grid. As Wladawsky-Berger notes, in the past, electrification has been one of the most important catalysts for growth. He now wonders, “Will the vast amounts of data generated by [human] activities — properly collected, analyzed and acted upon — lead to a kind of second electrification, transforming 21st century cities much as electricity did in the past?” Wladawsky-Berger is not sure. Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes) are more sanguine. They write, “No industry or household in the world will reach their future potential without access to broadband, it is the electricity of the 21st century.”[3] Tomer, Puentes, and Wladawsky-Berger share two connected ideas. First, electricity was and is important for the development of cities; and, second, data is becoming just as important. In order to make an electrical grid smart, you need data. Smart grids start with data and its analysis. As Lauris Veips notes, “There are myriad ways in which power suppliers can leverage data to optimize their power deliveries. With smart meters — meters that have two-way communication with the supplier — utilities have access to much more actionable data.”[4] Anderson and Leinmiller add, “Companies in the energy industry are in the unique position of offering more complete solutions for the smart cities market.” Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin () asks, “What makes a smart city?”[5] She obtains her answer from a report by Frost & Sullivan. “Frost & Sullivan says eight elements come into play — smart building, smart energy, smart infrastructure, smart technology, smart mobility, smart governance, smart healthcare and smart citizens.” She continues:

“Smart cities and smart technology are likely to alter the city-based utility landscape. Through the application of this technology in areas such as energy recovery from waste and managing energy efficiency, the focus for smart energy will remain on transforming the power grid. To meet this demand and differentiate themselves, utility companies should tailor various new service packages for their customers.”

In another article, Lundin reports that Frost & Sullivan concluded, “Global smart cities will only function through the installation of both a smart grid and a form of energy storage, ensuring efficient, intelligent power consumption and management.”[6] Ben Packer, a data scientist at Opower, insists that one of the new technologies that power companies need to exploit is machine learning. “You’ve probably heard something about machine learning,” he writes. “This branch of science, which involves crunching massive datasets to find hidden patterns, is helping companies solve problems that used to be unsolvable.”[7] As the headline of his article states, Packer lists seven ways that machine learning can help make electrical grids smarter.


  • Uncovering hidden energy use patterns
  • Getting more people to enroll in utility programs
  • Identifying untapped energy efficiency opportunities
  • Determining how customers heat their homes
  • Optimizing thermostat setpoints
  • Integrating electric cars into the grid
  • Keeping customers for the long haul


Steven E. Collier (), Director of Smart Grid Strategies at Milsoft Utility Solutions, asserts, “A veritable ‘perfect storm’ of challenges and opportunities is profoundly changing the fundamentals of urban areas throughout the world. The driving force is the exploding growth of urban populations caused by both global population growth combined with dramatic relocation to urban centers.”[8] He continues:

“This poses daunting challenges for planning, deployment, operations, and management of infrastructure, procurement and utilization of resources and provision of services. Within each urban area, it becomes more difficult to procure and manage the necessities of life and business — housing, transportation, water, fuels, electricity, communications, information, education, products, services — while at the same time maintaining and improving economy, efficiency, sustainability, reliability, security, health, and safety. Fortunately, exponential improvements in the performance versus cost of electronics, telecommunications and information technologies are making it possible to address these complexities and challenges. A particularly interesting example is the advent of the ‘smart grid,’ an especially important development since everything else in an urban area requires economical, reliable and sustainable electric power and energy.”

Although electric grids and water systems are the most critical infrastructure networks on which to focus, ignoring other urban systems would be a mistake. Electric and water systems are simply first among equals. Urban areas must be looked at holistically and, in order to maximize results, data gathered from all systems must be integrated and analyzed to ensure efficiency and effectiveness and to discover new insights. But, as noted above, electricity and water are so fundamental to other activities ensuring they are optimized is in everyone’s best interests.


[1] Irving Wladawsky-Berger, “Smart Cities: A kind of 21st Century ‘Urban Electrification?’,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger Blog, 7 October 2013.
[2] Jim Anderson and Mark Leinmiller, introduction by Jesse Berst, “Why smart grid and smart water are essential to a smart city,” 19 February 2014.
[3] Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[4] Lauris Veips, “Smart Cities: How Big Data is Changing the Power Grid,” CloudTweaks, 8 October 2014.
[5] Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, “What makes a smart city?FierceEnergy, 11 November 2014.
[6] Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, “Smart grid, energy storage and smart cities,” Smart Grid News, 11 February 2014.
[7] Ben Packer, “7 reasons why utilities should be using machine learning,” Intelligent Utility, 22 March 2015.
[8] Steven E. Collier, “Challenges and Opportunities: Smart cities and the smart grid,” EnergyBiz, 29 July 2014.

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