Living Smarter? Smart Grid Cities and Their Major Pitfalls

A street scene from Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg. The city has entered into a partnership with IBM to reduce air pollution. Photo: Michael Stephens via Flickr
Jan 2017

As smart grid cities, metropolises in which infrastructure and businesses are connected over the Internet and through data sharing, gain momentum, they face challenges in cutting down on the environmental toll of urban areas.

Imagine if this happened: A city syncs its traffic lights and GPS devices, making a commute through the downtown area smooth and rapid. No more stop and go traffic, nor buses or taxis pulling out in front of moving cars.

Imagine, also, that the entire city runs on varying amounts of energy from renewable sources hundreds of kilometres away from the main hub. All around the city, business and skyscrapers are running off a collective network of energy providers, whose constant monitoring and analysis of energy consumption is hooked up to the other buildings and apartments for miles around.

Waste, emissions, energy, traffic, driverless cars, public safety monitoring, water and more are all interconnected in this “smart-grid” city. Such cities make use of big data and what’s called IOT connection – the Internet of Things, or interconnected devices that have the capacity to transmit and analyse loads of data within seconds.

Smart-grid cities are beginning to gain momentum across the world. As more countries invest in reducing fossil emissions, they have turned to their leading innovative ports and budding urban areas to begin to lead the way on sustainable development – on a city-wide level. Smart-grid models have already been executed in the United States in California and San Antonio, Texas, and in Johannesburg, South Africa; there, the local city government has partnered with IBM to reduce air pollution considerably by monitoring waste and energy usage.

In such a city, everything is monitored and controlled. The sales pitch is that smart grid technology can help to reverse the negative impact of areas that are typically notorious for producing environmental hazards.

Yet what do smart grid cities mean for the ecosystem that surrounds these budding metropolises? While promoters of this technology have promised much, the reality for many of the cities is far from the ideal. Cities adopting smart grid approaches have encountered multiple setbacks and are discovering that the impact on environmental health is more complex than some thought. Are smart grid cities really smart for the environment?

Facing setbacks

One issue facing smart grid cities may come from their sources of energy: renewables. While wind and solar farms and other forms of renewable energy are usually thought of as “clean” energy sources, they have their shortcomings.

Solar farms, for example, can harm the land they occupy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Constructing nearly a square mile of solar panels may be enough to power a city, but it keeps native plants from growing on the land sitting below the panels.

Then there’s the production phase: National Geographic recently released an article highlighting the potential environmental hazards of solar panel production. Research has shown that making solar panels can release waste products, such as heavy metals, into the environment. The biggest problem seems to be a lack of standardisation, according to the article, as each country that develops the panels has their own set of rules and regulations on production.

However, changes to the industry are underway: Although solar panels can produce toxic waste during production, manufacturers hope to soon be able to recycle first generation models for future use. This will mean the next generation of panels, while recycled from the older models, will have reduced waste and harmful emissions during production. The only setback is the wait.

Concerns over solar panels highlight the two largest pitfalls with a smart grid city model and the green energy they require: lack of regulation or standardisation and the need for cyclical repurposing in reducing waste and chemical use. International committees and standards for production are great in theory, but implementing them on a local level can be difficult when so much more law (local, state, federal and international) is at play.

In a commentary, David Thorpe, an energy consultant, referenced a recent study conducted on the environmental impact of smart grid cities in the United Kingdom:

“The problem [the study] identifies is that cities are constrained in their efforts to meet environmental challenges by a range of factors: not simply lack of money but lack of control over how that money is spent in their area. Also a lack of any long-term certainty over levels of funding from central government, and an overcomplicated system of local government, where key powers and responsibilities are shared across different levels and by different institutions often varying from city to city.”

Alexander Aylett with the National Institute for Scientific Research in Canada furthers this idea in another article on smart grid cities. He identifies that a major setback facing these cities is their approach to planning and lack of encompassing governance. With a top-down approach to overhauling cities, many local governments are struggling to integrate the needs of large corporations, small businesses, individuals and local government programmes. These oversights lead to holes, conflicting resolutions and potentially more damage to the local environment. In contrast, and creating a smart grid city means designing a metropolis “that is horizontal, relational, and collaborative,” Aylett writes.

Mitigating risks

As Aylett further acknowledges – and Thorpe agrees in his piece – the implementation of IOT technology is imperative to making smart grid cities work seamlessly. IOT covers many of the shortcomings that plagued cities in the earlier years of implementing city-wide environmental changes, and can help make plans for many urban areas into a reality. Through IOT, governments can track energy and waste from a smart grid city on a need-by-need basis in accordance with the local laws or standards. Similarly, they can share their analyses with any other government entities that are interested in the results.

However, recycling is still a concern. Luckily, when paired with IOT, there is another approach that can help reduce the toll of production: The Circular Economy. This new economic model adjusts our current understanding of “consume and destroy” and, instead, looks at ways to slow consumption through recycling, reusing food waste and incentivising producers to create green and reusable products. Although more needs to be done in terms of creating a model of standardisation, creating a circular and recycled economy is a strong start.

The European Union is well in the lead in terms of adopting the practice of recycling on a grand scale, and many of its new programmes have proven to reduce waste at an exponential rate. The primary goal of many of these programes is to “close the loop” from production to disposal, making use of secondary waste to eliminate trash. The EU’s plan is to have 65% of waste recycled regularly by 2030, and IOT can help nations regulate and track consumption from start to finish. 

The private sector, in turn, can then take advantage of the benefits of the Triple Bottom Line, an accounting framework that is emerging for many businesses as a way to emphasis sustainable, eco-friendly business practices. The Triple Bottom Line allows companies to define profit on a grander scale, by including their environmental and social impacts in their financial equations. Through this framework, businesses can evaluate their current costs – which might be higher in the initial estimates due to expensive renewable materials or sources – but can factor in that spending more now means they will save more in the long run and will benefit the environment.

Energy costs, repurposing potential and the overall health of the city may end up improving through a Circular Economy model and a Triple Bottom Line framework, and IOT stands to be the connecting link that makes the whole process more fluid.

Of course, these frameworks are simply that: theories waiting to be put into action on a grand scale. They could solve many of the problems of smart grid cities, or they could raise even more issues revolving around funding, emissions and more. One truth remains, however: Technology can help. Pairing innovations from different arenas together could be the future our citizens and the Earth needs.