Moving towards Smart urban solutions
Big data, “smart,” and the Internet of Things (IoT) are in the limelight of public perception. They hold a promise that through connecting everything with everyone and the application of intelligent response management, significant strides can be made towards sustainability. At the urban level, typical generic business drivers for smart solutions include the more efficient use of energy, decentralized generation and storage of renewable energy, utilization of heat and other (previously) untapped energy sources, as well as improvements in mobility, safety and traffic management.
The physical and virtual infrastructure connecting and powering such smart communities offers opportunities and benefits to better support a variety of lifestyles and age groups, as well as increase self-sufficiency and enhance resilience in the face of natural or human induced hazards. Moreover, they signify a shift from current single directional to multidirectional systems.
One of the challenges though of scaling up and integrating smart solutions is total energy demand. The energy demand created by fully charging an electric vehicle (EV) can be as high as total domestic electricity consumption for one household, albeit more concentrated over particular periods of the day as well as geographical areas. For example, when consumers return home from work in the evening they are likely to turn on lights and appliances in their home, meanwhile recharging their EVs for use the following day.
Furthermore, the corresponding demand and supply management system will have to be able to operate in the context of uncertainty, predicting and extrapolating future availability of and demand for energy by using a diverse set of information sources to avoid overloading the system. Think for example of a major event in town, attracting a large number of EVs (parked) in one location; or weather patterns influencing the demand for cooling, heating as well as mode of transport used.
Large-scale adoption of current type EVs will therefore require new delivery mechanisms, building upon ICT infrastructure and distributed intelligence in the smart grid system to guide, distribute and defer charges such that large variations in demand and supply are minimized.
EV batteries as an example can potentially be integrated into a decentralized management system controlling a virtual power plant and a virtual giant battery storage system. Each consists of multiple energy supply sources, respectively storage devices in order to distribute load and supply to suitable points across the network or time periods.
The need for ICT – consumer symbiosis in EV charging
Of essence is to realize that this effort is not merely a matter of creating a giant machine-to-machine network. An optimal combination of an intelligent demand-response management system as well as an effective program to incentivize consumers to adapt their energy usage behavior will be critical to the success of an integrated smart community with decentralized energy supplies.
In Japan trials are now being conducted to analyze and influence consumer behavior in response to the use of critical peak pricing – i.e. energy prices fluctuate according to energy demand and supply; Time of Use pricing; higher rates during specific peak times; and rebates – i.e. peak time rebates, limited peak time rebates, and committed peak time rebates.
Consequently one can imagine the future interaction between consumer and EV for charging purposes to be managed in a variety of ways, such as:
- Users plugging in and out when and as suits, in particular when it is cheaper to charge (e.g. time-of-use charging, rebates for deferred charging);
- EVs coming equipped with charge management technology that allows for charging to be scheduled and/or controlled remotely by the user;
- Dedicated EV charging equipment with charge management capabilities supporting scheduling and/or remote control – by the user or a third-party such as the energy utility.
The future of cars and the link to a sharing economy
Nonetheless, most planning exercises assume a society where contemporary personal vehicles are replaced by similar type EVs. A dense grid of charging stations would be set up for refueling purposes, potentially even including non-contact type battery chargers along highways to transmit energy via electromagnetic waves. This approach pays little consideration to social changes.
Instead, the personal car may not be here to stay. In response to either demographic changes in society, urbanization, fossil fuel scarcity, environmental concerns and/or altered purchasing behavior of younger generations, the future may look more like one where EV’s functional value and therewith shape, form and ownership are directly linked to society’s social, energy and mobility needs.
An emerging example which allows for better load management of EV batteries are on-demand EV car or pod sharing schemes. Short to medium distance trips within an urban perimeter and regular charging opportunities enable EVs to perform well, while the pay-per-use rather than pay-to-own business model provides mobility access to consumers without having to fork out the high up-front capital cost of an EV battery.
Roadblocks ahead for full optimization
Despite the promising future for a wide-scale uptake of EVs, a number of critical challenges remain. One of them lies in the fact that these intelligent demand-response systems are currently still under development. They require further research, testing and trialing before they can be expected to successfully operate in a smart community with limited risk of major power disruptions or consumer inconveniences.
In addition, consumers’ exposure to smart/ICT-based technology solutions as well as the concept of energy efficiency varies significantly per country and even between urban and rural areas. Let alone the risk of potential consumer complacency towards smart energy-management solutions. Attaining consumer acceptance and successful long-term behavioral modification will therefore require very careful introduction and planning.
Finally, safety and privacy concerns regarding the enabling ICT infrastructure of a smart system can result in negative perceptions or resistance amongst consumers. Although smart systems can greatly improving customer convenience and even reduce cost, for some the large numbers of data being collected on individual consumer behavior can be sufficient reason to opt out of systems perceived as posing an increased risk of data infringement.
Let me therefore conclude by stressing the need for an effective, and in this case critical, symbiosis between Smart Systems and Consumers to ensure the smart mobility dream turns out to be more than just a cloud in the sky.
Renilde Becqué is an International Sustainability Consultant.