The Connected Community: A holistic approach to smart cities and the electrical contractor

Published On
Aug 15, 2022

Smart city and building sustainability efforts are driving upgrades to electrical and low-voltage infrastructure. The focus today is installing unified systems with room to grow, connecting lighting and metering systems to prepare a community for technological changes ahead. For city managers and planners, that means installing the power and connectivity they need in an approach that is well-organized and in participation with a wide variety of constituents.

Global spending on smart city technology topped $120 billion in 2020 and is expected to be about $189.5 billion by 2023, according to ResearchandMarkets.

The growing capability of networks today is playing a role in that growth by enabling collaboration and driving innovation, said Matthew Dietz, Cisco’s global smart cities lead. 5G connectivity is just one example. The network is where it begins, but expansion goes from there.

“The critical infrastructure is what we focus on, as well as the security of it,” he said. “From there, each city and those who provide connectivity need to work together to develop the best approach for building out their system, for now and the future. That presents an opportunity for electrical contractors.”

There is no cookie-cutter approach.

“Every community is going to be a little different, so we like to listen to what communities are trying to achieve, show them what’s possible and then craft a customized solution,” Dietz said.

Among those often at the table, helping to form those plans are the electrical contractors. They can often help cities understand the power needs and a holistic approach to smart city systems.

With the help of an electrical contractor, cities are better able to understand how they can meet their priorities while having the infrastructure in place for their future goals. Siloed solutions aren’t sustainable, said Steve Vetter, Cisco’s senior global strategist. Instead, Cisco tries to deliver a smart integrated solution with a platform approach.

Smart city growth is underway, and “Cisco views this trend as unstoppable,” he said.

Smart city strategies

The variety of smart city technologies is still daunting to many, so this forward-moving trend is also going to take many years to develop. This means electrical contractors are poised to provide part of the solution, Vetter said.

It starts with critical infrastructure, which is today often partially funded by the government. Power over ethernet (PoE), for instance, may be in use throughout a city, but it still requires electrical power to drive that connectivity. And while purely wireless systems are in the works, they too will always need the power source that electrical contractors can build out for them.

“I think the ability to integrate AC with DC, to bring them together as part of an orchestrated solution,” is key, Vetter said. “If you want resiliency of the infrastructure, you’re going to need both and they need to be integrated.”

With that in mind, Vetter said contractors can help cities understand how they need to work together.

“Most of the time, the grid is going to be there,” so the question is how to help integrate the systems whether they are in use on public streets, on a manufacturing floor or in residential housing.

For Cisco, contractor support helps the company ensure the system can support cities now and in the future. The more innovative a contractor can be, the more likely they can be part of the smart city partnership in any community going forward. The dependence on electricity is only going to grow as technology evolves, Dietz said. The company offers support in the form of its Cisco Network Academy that focuses on the latest technologies and trends.

Smart city installations are accelerating in 10 key areas, including transit corridors, sports complexes, residential buildings, critical infrastructure, utilities, public safety, airports and ports. All are fed by an architecture with electricity as its core.

An international pursuit

Examples of large and small build-outs are underway or recently completed around the world. At Expo 2020 Dubai, technology company Siemens co-created a blueprint for future smart cities at a purpose-built site measuring about twice the size of Monaco. Siemens digitally linked more than 130 buildings, 5,500 doors and 15,000 cameras. While the six-month-long event ended in March 2022, almost 80% of the infrastructure remains and now forms the core of a sustainable new urban district of Dubai, known as District 2020, said Ruth Gratzke, president of Siemens (Atlanta) smart infrastructure in the United States.

In the meantime, the global technology company launched Aspern Smart City Research to investigate how energy systems and intelligent buildings operate together in an urban subcenter. In addition to being efficient, the city of the future has to be worth living in, Gratzke said. Most cities are considering a blend of solutions, often with an eye to sustainability and energy reductions.

Resiliency is another recent consideration, as cities focus on storm hardening during hurricane-, tornado-, flood- and wildfire-prone times of year. Proactive grid modernization measures might include digitalization and automation.

smart cities
Photo courtesy of Siemens

Staying ahead of the curve

The work also requires consideration for aging infrastructure already in use.

“Some components of our grid date back more than a century,” Gratzke said.

Cybersecurity is also an evolving concern for any new technology. That means technology such as automated controls and data monitoring and analysis are being developed to help predict, prevent or respond to potential disruptions and maintain the integrity of energy systems.

In the meantime, the transition to holistic systems is still only partially underway.

“We’re still seeing individual entities and agencies implement defined components of what ultimately comprise overall smart city deployments,” Gratzke said. However, the separate parties tend to work together “as they often share common interests such as sustainability and decarbonization goals.”

She predicted that projects will become increasingly umbrellaed under one entity, especially as city budgets potentially face further constraints.

Smart from the ground up

Sterling Ranch, a Colorado community—under construction and projected for 12,000 homes—has been working with Siemens to provide command, control and communications technology. Sterling’s approach has connectivity at its core, leveraging its own subsidiary company, Lumiere Fiber & Technologies, to install the fiber backbone and plan the community’s technology for now and the future, said Walker Hinshaw, Lumiere Fiber’s CEO.

“We’re trying to create a truly 21st-century community and we see that as really finding the intersection between a love of people, nature and technology,” he said.

So far there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people living in Sterling Ranch, while there will also be several million square feet of commercial space, including restaurants and stores, healthcare facilities and offices, in addition to up to 12,000 homes.

The first step is to install a fiber network with considerably more coverage than an average system used purely for internet access. That will allow the community to easily connect a variety of devices in the future.

“We really feel that fiber is going to be the enabling technology to allow us to continue adopting new technologies and new methods of connectivity as we move forward. It really is the closest thing that you can get to a future-proof type of technology,” Hinshaw said.

The community is being built with a centralized system that receives input from various applications, such as smart street lighting and signaling. Beyond that, every home in Sterling Ranch comes with a smart irrigation controller that connects to the internet and leverages weather forecasts to manage watering patterns more effectively and with less waste. The community is also providing homeowners with water and energy meters to offer feedback on each home’s power usage and water consumption, in real time.

Sterling Ranch also offers its “Solar Made Simple” program, which amounts to providing solar power by default. Each home comes with solar panels, unless residents opt out. So far, few residents are doing that.

“Here in Colorado we’ve run the numbers, and it’s a financial win for homeowners,” Hinshaw said. So the community wanted to make solar energy as easy as possible for each resident, rather than “making them jump through much hoops to get solar.”

Each home also comes with electric vehicle charging built in.

“There’s nothing super complex about the technology itself,” Hinshaw said.

What is unique is the approach of building the smart home connectivity across all homes as a new community takes shape.

“I think the concept that’s interesting is that we can apply this [technology] to every home from the start,” he said. “So suddenly you’ve got all these individual endpoints that are all acting in their own self interest, but in aggregate it’s beneficial to the entire community.”

In the long term, Lumiere intends to offer similar solutions to other communities, for new developments, but potentially also for retrofits in existing ones.

“I think there’s going to be plenty of that kind of development still ahead,” Hinshaw said, although the process of delivering intelligence takes time. “We are turning a battleship as opposed to a little speedboat. So turning that does take time.”

As the rollouts take place across the country, opportunities will arise for companies that choose to help provide infrastructure to the various networks of lights, sensors and software platforms.

Working with reputable solutions partners is a good place to start, Gratzke said, such as those that can help keep them abreast of where the industry is headed and what kind of technologies and solutions might best address future challenges.

For anyone in the business of powering such systems, she advised, “Be a life-long learner of your industry, embracing the various training and educational platforms for electrical contractors that are out there.”

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