April 15, 2017 Djuan Coleon

Smart Cities Innovation and the role of Energy

Smart Cites is a concept that is not coming but it’s already here. Cities all over the globe and in America are in the process of transforming their urban centers into more efficient, resilient, sustainable and livable spaces for citizens to be able to “Live, Work and Play” in. The Smart Cities Council defines a smart city as one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions. The challenge is not just getting these functions to work in sync but how do we “power” everything? The last 8 years the government promoted a Clean Power Plan as the energy solution to build our smart city frameworks. . Is switching energy sources simple as switching one Lego block for another is it “plug and play”.Can cities just swap out their entire electric power grids to renewable energy? Would that be “smart” to do?

The Navajo Generating Station. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)


The American Society of Engineers 2017 Energy Infrastructure Report card grade is: D+

“Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 20th century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity.”

One of the major components of a Smart City is the energy grid. In the next 4 to 8 years cities will have to be innovative in upgrading their energy sources juxtaposed with President Trump vowing to revive the coal industry jobs and the fossil fuels industry. City leadership will have to decide how to keep the power on with the level of consistency we’re used to with fossil fuels and at the same time reduce the carbon footprint? Are American cities going to be able to be powered 100% by renewable energy sources anytime soon?  The pitch has been so simplistic “coal is bad, save the planet with solar”. Fossil Fuels are not the only culprit of pollution as we have seen lead in the water in cities like Flint. Smart Cities have to not just build but be innovative in toxic and hazardous waste disposal.

“In metropolitan areas, where four of every five hazardous waste facilities are located, people of color percentages in hazardous waste host neighborhoods are significantly greater than those in non­host areas (57% vs. 33%). One hundred and five of the 149 metropolitan areas with facilities (70%) have host neighborhoods with disproportionately high percentages of people of color, and 46 of these metro areas (31%) have majority people of color host neighborhoods.” (Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007)

Cancer Alley, Louisiana

Cancer Alley, Louisiana


Smart Cities are not just about “cool” new LEED certified buildings and beautiful parks and green spaces. We must find ways to make energy affordable because solar is still not an option for many of our working families and those living below the poverty line. Do cities have in plans how to include low to moderate income communities. Maybe the hope is all those people will be displaced by gentrification. Who pays for LMI communities to get renewable energy when they can’t afford to get it themselves? According to a Brookings Report income disparity and income inequality is on the rise in our urban cities.

Copy of inequality graphics-DJ.xlsx

Studies show the incomes in our cities are going down or stagnated inflation of the price of everything is going up. Every city in America can’t build or rehab communities for “expected guests” from other cities to relocate. We have to include traditional minority communities in our smart city migration process.  How we power our cities is critical to who lives in our cities.


Can we realistically keep the power on and switch to solar overnight and save the planet? In reality it took Las Vegas 10 years to switch 140 buildings over to 100% renewable energy. Yet the city of Las Vegas did not completely leave out the utility company. Las Vegas was able to create a smart city energy grid in collaboration with NV Energy the utility company in Las Vegas.

“Boulder Solar II is the 14th solar energy resource to serve customers in Nevada, and one of 43 diverse renewable energy projects that are helping to meet the electricity needs of NV Energy customers” 

How Las Vegas wants to power its neon.(Jason Reed / Reuters)

How Las Vegas wants to power its neon. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

Las Vegas’s population is about 549,000 with a 10% African American population and a 30% Hispanic population. The median income is $22,429 down -5.3%.  How many cities can duplicate the energy mix of Las Vegas which is a combination of solar panels, hydroelectric turbines and the Hoover Dam    So the burden of “switching the grid” was not soley on the tax payers. One of the key aspects of “smart cities” is collaboration with all stakeholders including the utility companies. The utilities own the grid and even the lighting systems in many municipalities. Cities have to figure out how to work together like Las Vegas did to improve their infrastructure more than ever since the government under President Trump is not going to be supporting renewable energy with federal dollars as the previous administration. How will cities pay for the improvements? Will they raise taxes? Will the utilities be forced to raise rates? How does this benefit the citizens whom the smart city are supposed to benefit? There is is only one city in America that is completely 100% renewable and that is. The first city to switch their grid over to 100% renewable energy is Burlington, Vermont (pop. 42,000), but you have to look at how they did it. Burlington implement a solar farm, wind power from the mountains and a dam on the local river. The city of Burlington owns it’s own power grid but this does not mean the cities residents get “free” energy from the grid. Renewable energy even 100% renewable is not going to be free to consumers, they will still get energy bills. Will these costs be lower that fossil fuels? Just because your city becomes powered by 100% renewable energy this does not mean the residents will also be “off the grid”. If the residents can’t afford to invest in generating their own energy source they will be reliant on the smart city options the city provides for them for a cost. Renewable energy is as much about reducing the carbon footprint as it is changing and increasing revenue models for cities who no longer want to see utility companies make profits off of providing energy to it’s citizens.  Cities are not all created the same and don’t have the same access to natural resources as others. City planners will have to be strategic on what is the right mix of energy sources for their demographics of citizens based on income levels and accessibility.



Utility companies do more than provide energy, one of the critical components of a smart city is data management of energy resources. Providing energy has to be a coordinated collaborative effort in a smart city because in order to serve the needs of the citizens you need to be able to anticipate needs based on historical data. Electricity, Water and Natural Gas utilities are in the process of modernizing their own part to the overall “smart city” grid. All the the data collected has to be able to communicated through sensors across the grid for greater system intelligence. Municipalities cannot do these tasks alone without the help of utilities. According to a Smart Cities Utility report by

Forty percent of respondents indicated they are waiting for assets to wear out before upgrading— suggesting adherence to the old adage,“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” (Black and Veatch)

29 Smart City Info Graphic

The modern age is as much industrial revolution as it is human evolution, and with this maturity come new value streams. – Edward Sutton (Grid Modernization Shifting to A Digital Grid Takes System-wide Grid Modernization)

As we undertake this Smart City revolution across America we have to not just think dollars and sense but environmental stewardship. And with environmental stewardship that means the actual people being impacted by the environment. So often in the “green climate change” discourse there is not enough consideration for the communities who are impacted negatively by our environmental choices. Are we building new urban utopias and leaving out whole swaths of the population? Will cities seek to forge the fourth industrial revolution alone or will they collaborate with long time utility companies? One thing is for certain a smart city has to not only engage all stake holders at every level but holistically include everyone in the discussion. We cannot let the machines and senors make all the decisions, we must remember a smart city is about building a better way of life for all the people in the cities.


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