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Redefining power and energy for smart cities

18 Jun 2019
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Article by Eaton Southeast Asia country manager Isabel Chong.

Earth is getting more crowded and urbanised. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will be concentrated in urban areas. From poverty to environmental degradation, urbanisation will create a range of new challenges for the planet.

In a bid to mitigate these negative outcomes, countries around the world are leaning on technology and digital systems to build smart, sustainable cities. Cities across Asia are making progress in the development of infrastructure and systems for a smarter, greener future. Singapore, for instance, is expected to spend over US$1 billion on smart cities initiatives such as rolling out e-government services, and implementing legislation and infrastructure for autonomous vehicles.

With digital systems forming the backbone of city life, smart cities will become more energy-intensive. Energy efficiency is so closely tied to environmental impact that now, governments and enterprises will also need to consider: how can they sustainably power the cities of tomorrow? The answers might lie in relooking some central components of smart cities – data centers, electrical vehicles (EVs) and our smart homes.

Data centers: from energy liability to asset

The transition to smart cities will drive up the amount of data that is transmitted between devices. Every smartphone talking to car parking systems, or lamp posts tracking weather conditions, generate data that is sent through and stored in a data center.

This explosion of data has its repercussions on data centers and energy efficiency. Singapore expects data centers to consume up to 12% of the country’s total energy demand by 2030. Similarly, the Asian Development Bank found that in 2017, Indonesia’s data centers accounted for up to 3% of the country’s electricity capacity, throttling already-tight supply capacities. 

The energy sector and data centers have already considered the obvious choice of renewables to power smart cities. However, energy generated from solar and wind is typically difficult to store and predict. Energy may be generated at times where demand is low, resulting in wastage. But now, data centers can play an active role in managing this ever-changing power flux with an existing asset: the battery storage system in its uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units.

In recent years, battery technology has advanced to a point where industrial-grade storage systems can now be employed to store unused energy. This could then be fed back into the grid during periods of peak demand. This flexibility ensures flux is managed effectively, creating a more consistent and resilient energy supply at the grid-level, enabling smart cities to run smoothly. At the same time, battery storage would transformation the data center from being a costly, energy-guzzling resource into an energy hub that can power nearby businesses, cool offices and keep the lights on. 

Going green from home to the road

The same technology could be applied to other aspects of smart cities. Southeast Asia is pushing for the adoption of EVs, in large to enjoy the benefits of reduced carbon emissions. The Philippines and Indonesia have taken steps to support this transition from traditional cars, such as wooing investments for the manufacture of EVs and setting up regulatory frameworks for standardised charging stations. Off the roads, Southeast Asian households are tipped to generate US$818 million for the smart home market in 2019.

The uptick of smart home technologies and EVs is certain to place demands on the grid. On top of rising energy demand, cities will need to build a national network of charging facilities to support drivers looking to charge their cars. Extending the grid infrastructure is one way to control peak demand and grid stability, but this can be costly and time-consuming. The solution, then, could be to look outside of the components of a conventional grid: with battery energy storage.

Similar to data centers, charging sites and smart homes can install battery-based energy storage to reduce the toll on the grid. 

In the Netherlands, the Johan Cruijff Arena relies on 148 batteries for its energy storage system, forming a total capacity of three megawatts. This capacity is enough to power several thousand households, and allows for energy produced by solar panels in the arena to be stored and used optimally.

Intelligent, innovative power systems

Turning smart cities from dream to reality requires a concerted effort, of which power systems are a critical component. Building efficient power systems to keep our smart cities up and running does not have to be an expensive, complex undertaking. Equipping data centers with the capacity to store energy and ensuring our homes and EV infrastructure is sustainable by design – these are steps that will have a huge impact on creating sustainable, energy-efficient smart cities to manage future urbanisation.

Governments, businesses and citizens can work hand-in-hand to assess a city’s power infrastructure, and collaborate with power management experts to innovatively transform assets and systems.