Urban tech: From Masdar to Main Street?

Residents of Masdar City in the Middle East have smart appliances, use electricity from a solar power plant and get around by robotaxi. When will you do the same?

On the outskirts of Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf, just southeast of Qatar and not far from Iran, a sparkling new metropolis called Masdar City is rising in the desert. The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company began construction of Masdar in 2008, and so far the site features one major street and a few residential and research buildings in its tech institute, and it has grand intentions of becoming the first municipality powered entirely by renewable energy sources.

Americans might have expected Silicon Valley to lead such a charge, but City 2.0 is emerging halfway across the world.

In Masdar City, a personal rapid transport system buzzes passengers from one building to another in driverless "robotaxis." (The city does not allow any personal automobiles.) A solar power plant heats the city's water and provides electricity to a water treatment facility. Every electrical outlet in the city is monitored, and the total municipal power usage is reported on a water tower standing in the city center. Smart meters, connected into a smart grid, know all kinds of details about power usage -- such as when a dryer is running too long.

Designed by the British architects Foster + Partners as a showcase for sustainable architecture and engineering, the city is expected to have 40,000 residents when it's fully built in 2025. While few if any American cities have the financial equivalent of the Abu Dhabi government's deep pockets to bankroll investments in energy-saving infrastructure, some of Masdar's cutting-edge energy technologies -- smart appliances in the home, renewable energy sources, and clean, self-driving personal transit -- may be coming to a city near you. Here's how these urban technologies are evolving in the United States.

Smart appliances

The dishwasher in your kitchen is not that smart. Sure, some models let you program a wash cycle for late at night when electricity rates are low. But they can't read and respond intelligently to your electric meter -- a capability that would make it possible to, for instance, have them automatically turn on when the rates during the day are at their lowest.

One of the key problems, says John Millberg, an energy manager with the Minneapolis city government, is that many utilities don't offer tiered cost structures during the day. So even if homes were equipped with smart appliances and smart meters, there would be no incentive to do more to manage power usage than choosing between running appliances during the day or at night. Moving to a tiered structure would require a mandate from the city's public utilities commission, he says.

Texas and California are two states that do have tiered pricing. That's why Texas-based Reliant Energy started a pilot program with a few General Electric employees in Houston to try out smart appliances. Each test appliance -- including water heaters, dishwashers and clothes dryers -- has a communications module that uses the ZigBee wireless protocol, says Wayne Morrison, the manager of smart energy partnerships at Reliant, who is in charge of the pilot. The modules connect to a smart meter that reports exact usage back to the utility in real time.

If the customer allows it, the utility can automatically send a command to the appliance to run during a specific time of the day, Morrison says. (Of course, appliances have to be prepped for the automatic schedule with soap and dishes -- at least until we all have robomaids.) Reliant offers pilot customers a Web portal where they can see how much energy they used during the day and view reports about usage over a few days or weeks. The company also sends emails to let them know about their energy savings.

In the next decade, smart appliances will be able to send diagnostic information to the utility and even send a message to a repair technicians automatically, says Morrison. Some of the latest home appliances, like the Samsung RSG309 Wi-Fi Refrigerator, can use Wi-Fi over home routers today, but future models could tap into the grid directly, he says. For now, they can run apps in a touchscreen display to show things like weather forecasts, schedules of upcoming family events or recipes.

John H. Desmarais, a development manager at GE, says smart appliances can reduce energy use in a home by up to 20%. And appliances are just the start, he says: Once the U.S. adopts a widespread "smart grid" that lets utilities and homeowners access heating and cooling systems remotely, a smart thermostat, tied into the smart grid, could reduce energy use even more, since cooling and heating are responsible for 28% of home energy use.

Desmarais envisions a day when every device in the home will connect to a smart grid. GE has developed a software platform for home energy management called Nucleus that's designed to plug into the smart grid of the future. The grid is not widespread yet, but in the meantime, there are products that take advantage of existing technologies to give people more control over when their appliances run and when they don't. For example, a company called Nest Labs offers a smart thermostat that connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you adjust temperature settings using an iPhone or schedule automatic temperature increases or decreases via the Web.

In the home of the future, the smart grid may connect to your appliances, your lights, your air conditioning system and the electric car in your garage. Credit: General Electric.

Unlike in Masdar -- a newly constructed metropolis where a smart grid can be implemented by fiat -- adoption of smart appliances in the U.S. likely faces a tough road, says Bob Gohn, an analyst at Pike Research. "There are a number of pieces of the puzzle that have to come together before smart appliances make sense from an energy perspective," he says -- standards need to be approved, utilities need to create tiered pricing plans, and smart meter technology needs to evolve.

The big hurdle, he says, is that a smart appliance has to integrate into a home's smart grid, called a home area network (HAN). The ZigBee standard ran into a roadblock in 2009, says Gohn, because the first iterations used a proprietary protocol, not the more standard TCP/IP.

Lately, Gohn says, ZigBee has started to adhere to standards like those being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that govern smart grid device interoperability and power use. The Smart Energy Profile 2.0, a set of TCP/IP-compliant standards developed by ZigBee for controlling and monitoring water and energy use in the home, is nearing approval, but Gohn says compatible devices won't be available until 2013.

Another factor holding back the adoption of smart appliances and smart grids is what Gohn and other industry watchers call the "Bakersfield effect" -- distrust of smart meters by consumers and consumer advocates. In 2009, the California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) conducted a pilot test of smart meters in Bakersfield, Calif., during which a perfect storm of rate increases, record temperatures and other factors caused utility bills to go way up, not down. As a result, state legislators blocked future smart grid deployments temporarily, although some California cities including San Francisco are now starting to deploy them.

Ironically, says Gohn, later analysis showed that the smart meters did track power usage more effectively. The problem, he explains, is that the new meters are extremely accurate. Older meters tend to fudge how much energy a home is using, to the advantage of the homeowner. But replacing them is better for the environment, because they more accurately reflect your energy usage and can show you where to make adjustments to reduce your energy consumption (for example, by suggesting that you turn down the heat at night). And if you do make such adjustments, they could ultimately lower your energy costs, even if your costs go up initially.

Eventually homeowners and municipalities will see the value of smart meters, says Gohn. He predicts that smart appliances will become popular by 2014, at which point adoption rates will begin to grow by 40% to 50% per year.

Personal, autonomously driven rapid transport

In late June 2011, the state of Nevada passed a law that would allow driverless cars on its roads, pending the Department of Motor Vehicles' development of regulations governing how the cars should operate on public highways. Those regulations were approved in February.

California looks to be headed in the same direction: The state senate in May approved a bill that would establish standards governing autonomously operated vehicles. Other states, including Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma, are considering similar legislation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Already, Google has put specially outfitted self-driving Toyota Prius models through test drives that covered 140,000 miles in northern California. A driver was always on hand to take over during the test drives, and there was only one minor fender-bender during the pilot, and it was caused by human error. Autonomous driving could cut the number of accidents in half, says Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer.

Of course, having one car drive you to work is one thing. In Masdar City, thousands of people ride in autonomous cabs that run on electric power and read markers on the road for navigation. There is no need for remote charging stations, because the cabs power up at a car terminal while waiting for people to load. There are now 10 taxis in operation, carrying about 25,000 passengers per month, according to 2GetThere, the company that developed the Masdar City robotaxis.

Robotaxis transport about 25,000 people per month in Masdar City. There are currently 10 vehicles in the fleet. Credit: 2GetThere.

There have been no reported accidents since the Masdar City taxis launched in December 2010, according to 2GetThere spokesman Robbert Lohmann, who says autonomous cars for public transit make sense in Masdar City because the road infrastructure is dedicated to the driverless cabs. "The chances of two vehicles coming into contact with each other are extremely remote," he says. "The predictable behavior of automated systems ensures that the random character of accidents as we experience them with manually driven vehicles, such as personal cars or trains, will be avoided."

What about on U.S. roads at highway speeds? Marcial Hernandez, a senior engineer at automaker Volkswagen, says the sensor technology needed for autonomous cars on highways is already available. Many cars can sense when another vehicle passes or automatically slow down to maintain a proper distance from the vehicle ahead of you on the highway (thanks to a technology called adaptive cruise control). A few models, like the Infiniti G, can nudge you back into a lane when your car gets too close to the shoulder.

In a recent research project, Hernandez says, VW developed a feature called Temporary Auto Pilot that uses such sensors and also controls steering. And Cadillac says it's road-testing a similar technology called Super Cruise that allows the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel for short periods of autonomous highway driving.

With Cadillac's Super Cruise technology, the car watches lane markings on the highway to control your speed and position in the lane for hands-free driving. Credit: Cadillac.

These features require advanced LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, which are sensitive enough to detect curbs and small objects, Hernandez explains. Often found in luxury cars today, LIDAR is still too expensive to be included in many low-end vehicles, Hernandez says. That's changing quickly, though; some lower-cost vehicles, such as the Ford Taurus, are equipped with LIDAR. But until every car uses the technology, it may be hard for autonomous driving to gain traction.

Another issue hindering the adoption of driverless cars in the U.S., Hernandez says, is that the traffic infrastructure is not yet ready. A driverless car could speed down the highway, but today it wouldn't know a simple condition such as whether a traffic light is green or red, or if a parking space is available at the mall. For robotaxis to be viable, a city would need to build a wireless infrastructure that communicates all of this information to the cars.

"The biggest problem is that robotaxis require infrastructure investments and changes to create a reliable foundation," says Thilo Koslowski, an auto industry analyst at Gartner, who says U.S. consumers are in favor of autonomous cars. "Ideally, autonomous vehicles will be connected 24/7 with traffic management networks to optimize routing and congestion levels. These cars can also function as traffic probes to collect speed and congestion information."

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking some initial steps toward building more-connected roadways. It will conduct a yearlong test of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting this fall. Test cars will connect to each other and to the road to be alerted to imminent crash situations, construction zones and more. The use of such wireless communications systems could lead to an 80% reduction in accidents, according to the NHTSA.

While the benefits of robotic public transit seem obvious, there are also some equally obvious concerns, including liability. Aarjav Trivedi, the COO of RideCell, an Atlanta-based automated fleet-management company, says there are many legal questions about who would be at fault in a collision between a robotaxi and another car, how autonomous vehicles will be insured, and even how a city will deal with the eventual problem of labor disputes for those who are employed by the city's official cab companies.

Hernandez estimates that semi-autonomous cars that do much of their own steering on highways could appear in 10 years, but full autonomous driving is at least 20 years away -- which should give governments time to work on questions of liability and other concerns as they build the infrastructure to support driverless cars.

Solar municipal power

Masdar City is "carbon neutral" in that it does not draw energy from the regional power grid, and instead generates all of its own electricity from solar power, at least for now. (As the city grows, there will be an increased need to use energy that is not generated within the city limits, but officials say the energy will still come from renewable sources.)

In a small municipality, solar-only is a feasible power option, but what if you had to provide electricity for a metropolis the size of Los Angeles?

Today, alternative energy sources typically augment the electricity produced by coal and natural gas power plants, according to Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at Gartner. But he says companies such as Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy are developing new technologies to make solar power collection more viable.

While most solar power in the United States is currently generated by rooftop panels that provide direct power for appliances and for heating and air conditioning units (called distributed solar), BrightSource uses centralized solar plants to store and then transport energy using electrical transmission lines, says Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman.

The energy company broke ground in the California desert for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in October 2010. The massive solar plant will use about 170,000 mirrors to capture the sun's energy. Software tracks the position of the mirrors and makes fine adjustments to each mirror for the best power draw.

The Ivanpah solar plant, which will be the world's biggest when it's completed in 2013, uses adjustable angled mirrors to focus the sun's rays for power collection. Credit: BrightSource Energy.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah complex, which is backed by a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan and private capital, will generate about 370 megawatts of power per year for PG&E and Southern California Edison when it's completed in 2013. That's enough to power 140,000 homes, and nearly twice the amount of solar power generated commercially last year in the U.S., according to BrightSource. But it will still just be a supplement to existing power generation sources.

The problem, Wachs says, is that many states are not equipped to transmit that power. Last year, about 11,000 miles of natural gas pipelines were installed in the United States. In comparison, says Wachs, about 700 miles of solar transmission lines were installed in 2010. So while Los Angeles can benefit greatly from the Ivanpah plant, other cities are currently left without access to its solar power.

That's the case for Minneapolis, says city energy manager John Millberg. The city has a goal to use about 1 megawatt of renewable energy per year for all city services by 2014. Today, the city uses about 800 kilowatts per year, aided by a rooftop solar installation on the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Millberg says Minneapolis would be open to purchasing power from another state that has a massive solar power plant, but today the costs are too high. The city does have plans to install a transmission line for wind energy that's generated south of the city, he adds.

Solar roof panels provide about 5% of the power used by the Minneapolis Convention Center.Credit: City of Minneapolis.

Like Minneapolis, many state and municipal governments have renewable energy initiatives on the books. California, for instance, has passed legislation requiring utilities that serve the state to get 33% of their power from renewable sources by 2020, despite concerns about higher costs for consumers and businesses. The city of San Francisco has an even more ambitious goal of using 100% renewable power by 2020. And Austin, Texas, has already achieved its goal of running the city government entirely with renewable energy.

Driven by initiatives like these, solar will inevitably grow in importance as a power source for U.S. cities, with a mix of rooftop solar panels that feed energy directly to homes and businesses and utility-generated solar power that augments power from existing sources, according to Gartner's Velosa. Several small plants, such as the 32-megawatt Long Island Solar Farm in Upton, N.Y., and the 30-megawatt Cimarron Solar Facility in Colfax County, N.M., are already up and running.

"Depending on how you cut the data, we have hundreds of plants in the utility-centered photovoltaic market, ranging from 0.2-to-0.5-gigawatt behemoths to 5-megawatt projects," says Velosa. "Many still lack financing, but [the sector] is extremely active and dynamic."

For the foreseeable future, however, solar is unlikely to be the sole or even primary source of power for most U.S. cities, according to Velosa. The obvious problem, he says, is storage -- energy generated during the day has to be stored at night, which is why it's important to watch the solar storage technology market, not just advances in solar generation. "Storage is critical for solar, since utilities are measured on consistent power," he says.

Still, Velosa is bullish on solar's future in the U.S. "Given the experience in Germany" -- a world leader in solar power generation -- "over the past decade, if the financials make sense, we can expect very high adoption rates for solar as prices continue to decrease," he says.

Into the future

In many ways, sustainable urban technology is in a state that's similar to where information technology found itself several decades ago: It's struggling to overcome a serious lack of standards, bureaucratic tangles that have arisen because technologists didn't understand what business units needed and vice versa, and staid attitudes among the powers that be, who assert that the technology in place works just fine for most of the population. But look at IT today: It's a problem-solver, a business-enabler and an innovation-driver in most companies.

Green IT can take a similar path in the United States, but real progress will happen only after we overcome a variety of challenges on issues ranging from funding to legislation and consumer acceptance. Masdar City shows that technologies like robotaxis, smart appliances and solar power are feasible on a citywide scale. Now cities in the U.S. need to take a long look at what it will take to replicate those successes here.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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