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Urban Energy Labs

Innovations in power at the grassroots

CHICAGO — The individual cities and states are more than just the laboratories of democracy, they are the testing grounds of energy policy.

Storage, renewables, metering, resilience, cybersecurity and privacy were just some of the topics covered at the recent landmark executive energy conference, Empowering Customers & Cities.

Content Director for The Energy Times and Conference Co-Chair Marty Rosenberg introduced and moderated a panel that included a high-ranking city government official, an expert on state legislation, and a technologist specializing in network solutions as they discussed the latest innovations and how they are changing the energy industry landscape.

Glen Andersen, Christopher Wheat and Eric Dresselhuys.

Christopher Wheat, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, has one of the most important city government jobs that almost no one knows exists. Yet more and more large municipalities are discovering the need for a high-ranking city official with a mandate like his: incentivizing sustainability and energy efficiency.

Chicago has spent millions of dollars in partnership with private companies to that end. Just two of the projects that he outlined included a pioneering energy storage solution in cooperation with the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, and a streetlight retrofit that will swap out more than 270,000 lights for LEDs

And along with his job go the unique concerns of the urban environment. Mayor Richard Daley wanted “keyhole-to-keyhole” lighting – light from when you locked your car door on the street to when you opened your front door. “There is the argument that people feel safer because the city is over-lit,” Wheat said. “We have to tread lightly in issues of public safety.”

Another urban issue is resilience.  Some cities, in fact, have what is called a chief resilience officer. This involves questions about investment in new equipment, in site security, as well as in distributed networks.  

Yet another is community equity – how to ensure that all the citizens have access to reliable, affordable power. “We will continue to push the envelope and ensure access to these initiatives to all Chicagoans,” Wheat said.

Glen Andersen, energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislators, said that new technology and new ways of using it are having a big impact on the energy sector. State policies are essential to making sure these disruptive changes take place in an efficient manner. “Technology leads,” Andersen said, “but policy rules.”

A lot of that disruption is coming from the green energy market, and a lot of the investment that built that market was made possible through legislation. Nearly 50 percent of the capacity additions for 2016 will be in solar, an additional 16 gigawatts. For the first time, solar has surpassed wind. Iowa, for example gets more than 30 percent of their electricity from wind. Texas gets about 12 percent, and they are one of the largest markets in the U.S.

Another concern for legislators is net metering. Will it be expanded? Will there be net metering caps? “Right now,” Andersen said, “there is a lot of misalignment between rate payers, utilities and policy makers.”

Where the real challenges come in, he said, was where issues become partisan issues. Coal, for example, is a hot-button item. “People shut down and don’t want to talk about it.” And perhaps the most basic partisan issue of all is, when can the market handle an issue, and when does the government need to intervene?

“I’m optimistic,” Andersen said, “that there’s a lot of common ground.”

Eric Dresselhuys, executive vice president of global development and co-founder, Silver Spring Networks, said that smart cities will be evolving.

Silver Springs Networks is a company specializing in IoT, smart utilities, network platforms and business system integration – the building blocks that make smart cities happen.

But Dresselhuys is quick to stress, “There is no smart city store. It’s not a thing, it’s a journey. It’s not the Emerald City, it’s the Yellow Brick Road.”

To help his clients make that journey, he helps them to think in new orders of complexity; about systems of systems, platforms of platforms. Making it all come together involves getting the incentives right. Some Silver Spring projects from around the world include:

In Paris they are working on a smart lighting plan and have come up against an unexpected challenge perhaps only Paris could create: aesthetics. They see the yellow light as a signature of the city, so white or blue LEDs are out. In fact, everything they do needs to be invisible to the naked eye — a thoroughly modern infrastructure underlying a Second Empire façade.

In Calcutta, the city has seen an opportunity to leapfrog from the 19th century to the 21st. Whether it’s controlling traffic patterns or electricity transmission, Calcutta can now use the same platforms and technology they are using in, say, Singapore.

In Georgia, right here in the U.S., Silver Springs has partnered with utilities to convert an old warehouse district into Urban Growth Centers, a series of greenhouses. It seems plants don’t care what time it is so long as they get enough light and water, so they now grow overnight under grow-lights when electricity costs are very cheap.

But the promise of smart cities comes with its problems as well. In some places around the world, Dresselhuys said, smart cities initiatives are started by governments expressly to monitor their citizens – to find out what people are doing every hour of the day.

“Cybersecurity and privacy are going to be big concerns in a networked, distributed energy delivery model,” Dresselhuys said.

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