For centuries, urban planners have sought various methods for making cities more efficient, from managing resources to tackling logistical issues to reducing the tremendous amount of waste generated by a typical urban center.
As populations around the world continue to gravitate toward cities, the need for cleaner, more efficient energy solutions is more pressing than ever. The specter of a warming planet adds even greater urgency to these challenges, but one solution may already lie within our grasp.
Over the past two decades, the world has become massively more connected than ever before. This is especially true of cities, where widespread availability of broadband Internet has combined with falling technology costs to create great networks of interconnected devices and objects ranging from buildings to vehicles to traffic lights.
These large-scale networks, often referred to as the “Internet of Things,” are being employed around the world to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of basic infrastructures such as the power grid, waste management and transportation systems. Smart cities would also ideally incorporate various cleaner and more sustainable methods of energy generation, mainly renewables that include solar, hydro, and wind.
Even in its embryonic stages, the movement toward smart cities has clearly been established as a necessary and significant step toward managing the inefficiency and waste of the modern urban center. However, there’s still another important piece to the puzzle.
Along with improving basic infrastructure systems, smarter cities must also foster smarter, more efficient traffic by encouraging the use of electric vehicles (EVs) in place of traditionally oil and gas powered vehicles.
With vehicles currently accounting for about 31 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, EVs offer a promising solution to reducing emissions and creating a more sustainable transportation system. EVs also help to reduce noise pollution, which is a common but little-appreciated issue in urban areas. The increasing popularity of EVs in the United States, with approximately 300,000 vehicles currently on the road and more being rolled out every day, makes it more practical than ever to begin a transition toward cleaner, more efficient vehicle traffic.
Smarter energy grids
There are, however, some roadblocks to full integration of EV traffic. The first is the need for smarter, more robust energy grids to handle the charging of EVs without disrupting existing traffic or electrical systems. Presently, most cities have a substandard charging grid that is not equipped to facilitate a large increase in EV traffic. Because EV cars have shorter, more variable ranges than traditional vehicles and require considerably longer to charge than a gas-powered vehicle requires to fill up, simply placing charging stations at each gas station is not a viable solution.
Here, too, smart technology may have the answer. By connecting EVs to a city’s smart grid, planners can collect an abundance of information tracking when and where EVs are charging, where and how EVs typically drive throughout the city, and a broad assortment of other information that can help to pinpoint the most efficient locations for charging stations.
As the number of EVs on the road grows, so too does another useful aspect of their interconnectivity with the electrical grid. EVs, and, in particular, those used as parts of large fleets such as cabs and buses, can actually have a modulating effect on the overall power grid. Parked EVs which are attached to the power grid are capable of both injecting and absorbing small amounts of electricity as necessary, helping to smooth out unexpected spikes and drops in electrical generation.
A smarter world
Though the world is just now learning how to build smarter cities and how best to incorporate EVs, some cities have already taken progressive steps.
In San Francisco, often seen as the electric vehicle capital of the United States, the government has been active in facilitating the building of larger networks of charging stations, from creating grants to passing regulations requiring a certain percentage of all new construction come pre-wired for EV charging.
It is also no surprise that the city is among the greenest cities, with a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.
Several other cities, such as Kansas City and San Diego, have begun taking advantage of the possibilities a smart city provides by leveraging the data at their disposal to deploy more charging stations in an optimal way.
Some cities are even experimenting with self-driving cars in a limited fashion, spurred on in part by advances such as the latest software from Tesla.
Though there are many problems still to be sorted out, smart cities and fully integrated electric vehicles give us valuables tools in the fight against climate change.
Renewable energy sources continue to become more affordable than ever, with solar looking like it is going to be cheaper than natural gas in the near future, according to Just Energy. As the population continues to balloon and key resources are stretched dangerously thin, smart cities provide us a roadmap toward a greener, more environmentally responsible future.