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Futurology: Smart Cities and Power Plants

Penny Hitchin

The future holds the promise of smart cities and power plants that utilize interconnected, decentralized networks to provide more efficient and sustainable public services.

World population is swelling, and cities are rapidly increasing in size and complexity. As population grows and technology advances, cities require increasingly sophisticated power networks. Planning ahead is the key to developing sustainable and efficient architecture through the use of technology, which will provide the necessary connections for smart cities of the future. The World Economic Forum identifies electrification, digitization, and decentralization as the key enablers in the development of smart cities and power plants of the future.

The concept of the smart city can be loosely defined as a city that uses information and communication technology to ensure that its critical infrastructure and public services are interactive and responsive. The city of the future will have access to unprecedented amounts of data that will enable utilities to provide better services. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) sees the smart city as a place where efficiency improvements are achieved by horizontally interconnecting individual systems to enable increased information sharing and coordination. These individual systems include electricity, communications, water, sanitation and waste management, transport, security, and environmental monitoring or weather intelligence.

Interconnecting and integrating infrastructure will lead to a paradigm shift in the way resources are used. Electricity will be the golden thread enabling such futuristic development.

Smart Cities and Power Plants

The smart-city power supply will not rely soley upon traditional, large, centralized power plants. The World Economic Forum identifies new grid edge technologies, including distributed storage, distributed generation, smart meters, smart appliances, and electric vehicles, as key developments for the future of electricity supply. Smart grids enable the communication of information between both suppliers and consumers. This two-way exchange of information improves the efficiency of the production and distribution of electricity. A decarbonized, electric public transport system will likely replace fossil-fueled vehicles in the smart city of the future. Their powerful, modern lithium batteries offer the potential to put power into the system at times of high demand and can be charged when demand is low.

Management of the smart city's power supply will be underpinned by powerful computers working with sets of cloud-stored big data to match demand with supply from a range of distributed generation and storage sources, in addition to contributions from conventional power plants. While smarter and more sophisticated systems will improve efficiency and reduce energy use for specific tasks, the overall growing power demand in an increasingly electrified economy will require the 24/7 reliability provided by conventional power plants. At the same time, locally generated renewable energy and local distribution grids will become increasingly important. A detailed understanding of patterns of demand along with sophisticated forecasting programs and differential pricing will improve the efficiency of energy usage.

Crystal Ball Gazing

Cities are already using smart functions, such as connected sensors and software-controlled traffic flows. Extensive use of CCTV enables better understanding of people's movements, which aids mass transport planning. The connectivity offered by the Internet of Things (IoT) means that some smart appliances could take over planning and ordering goods and services for businesses and individuals. Improved Wi-Fi connectivity and the increasing sophistication of smartphones opens up a host of possibilities—along with myriad concerns about security and privacy.

Autonomous, self-driving vehicles are already being developed at a rapid pace. It seems only a matter of time before they become part of the transportation network.

Raconteur considers a wide range of potential spin-offs from smart city systems, including giving people customized ways of controlling their well-being and health care. As technology continues to develop rapidly, the range of potential smart applications increases. The IoT and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags could mean that no one will have to fear losing their keys, pets, or kids again.

A note of caution: The development of smart cities is expensive. The rip and replace model of retrofitting smart networks to historic cities is not always practical. Incorporating smart infrastructure into new buildings is feasible, but it adds to the cost of development. In 2007, the UAE started work on Masdar City, an ambitious flagship plan to build a zero-carbon city housing 40,000 people in the Abu Dhabi desert. The plans for the high-density, pedestrian-friendly, skyscraper-free city integrate a range of renewable energy and sustainability technologies across a living and working community. Sadly, the financial crisis means that work on the multi-billion-dollar showpiece, whose design combined twenty-first-century engineering with traditional desert architecture, has slowed, and its scale and scope have been reduced.

However, around the globe, innovative work continues to develop different aspects of the suite of infrastructure technologies that will smarten our cities and simultaneously improve sustainability and efficiency. The rate of change is phenomenal, and innovations will continue to open up new possibilities in the way that we live and work. The twenty-first-century trend of cities increasingly integrating their infrastructure will accelerate the already rapid evolution of the electricity sector.

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