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A City Switched On: Introducing Our Energy & Environment Objectives

Cityverve electricity

In this series of blog posts, we’re outlining the core themes and use cases of the CityVerve project. This time, our energy and environment lead, Bev Taylor, Head of Energy and Environment at Bruntwood and Manchester Science Partnerships (MSP), provides an update on what she and the team are working on.

When was the last time you thought about electricity?

For modern city dwellers and digital natives, it’s easy to fall into the trap of consuming energy thoughtlessly.

We’ve all become accustomed to using it, relying on it, and not really considering what lies behind it. We just flick a switch.

And with countless more devices in the home and in the office, new automated technology in our factories, and greater demand for lighting on our streets, we’re becoming evermore energy-dependent.

Manchester: a power-hungry place

Endless levels of unchecked demand are problematic for many reasons. The first and most obvious is climate change.

Excessive energy consumption is causing the world’s temperature to rise, playing havoc with the earth’s ecological systems.

This impacts everyone – if the planet gets too hot, we are all in trouble.

But if the ice caps seem too abstract to worry about, there are many serious city-specific repercussions too.

Manchester, in particular, has a problem as our demand for power is very close to outstripping capacity.

The national grid can only provide so much energy. Unless we are willing to fundamentally change the infrastructure in our city – pulling up power lines and subsequently increasing our energy bills by a huge amount – we have to start working smarter with the grid. A smart, responsive grid, as far as I’m concerned, is absolutely key to building a smart city.

Otherwise, power issues could act as a real impediment to Manchester’s growth – and those living, working in, and visiting the city.

We’re lucky to be home to a vibrant and innovative tech scene (CityVerve itself is evidence of this). But technological development requires sustainable power solutions – we need to be able to satisfy the outsized energy demands of our city in the most efficient and environmentally conscious way.

These demands fluctuate too, of course: your office block is probably using less power during the night than the day, for example, in the same way that the roads are busier when everyone’s travelling to and from work.

This is the double bind we find ourselves in: we have big hopes and ambitions for tech, but we also need to power it sustainably, in a way that doesn’t stop the city from being a pleasant place to be.

For this reason, our work in energy and the environment underpins everything else in the CityVerve project.

Helping people engage with their energy needs

So how can we solve this problem?

The key, as far as I can see it, is making citizens more aware of the way that we all get our power. We need to do this in a way that’s intuitive and non-invasive.

One option, for example, is to develop an app or a website that acts as a single point of contact and sends users a signal to let them know when the grid is under pressure so that they can switch to battery for a time.

This has huge potential to save the system from significant amounts of stress.

Imagine if just half the people in your workplace, upon being nudged, chose to unplug for the grid’s busiest hour. This kind of small individual change can have a huge impact.

The difficulty is that we are not yet aware of how receptive people will be to following advice for their power usage.

There is the possibility of incorporating incentives to try and encourage certain energy-saving behaviours – although the reduction in energy (and money) waste alone should be enough!

At the moment we’re only taking baby steps towards becoming more in tune with the national grid. But I’m certain that the future will bring bigger strides.

In fact, my guess is that in three or four years time we will have switched from quarterly energy bills to time-of-use tariffs.

And a recent piece of equipment built by CityVerve consortium member Siemens has taken this concept further and added another layer to it.

This kit is able to look at the price signals from the market as well as the pressure that is building up in the grid, so it can alert you when electricity is particularly cheap – meaning you can plug your devices in to charge, for instance, at a certain time at a reduced cost. Keep an eye out for more news on this soon.

Again, this kind of tech is really at the cutting edge, but will soon be the norm – feeding into CityVerve’s broader aim to create a blueprint for smart cities of the future.

Practical techniques for smart management

On top of engaging with citizens, we’re looking to take practical steps to improve our energy efficiency.

I’ll give you a quick overview of the use cases we are developing:

Smart parking

The lack of car parking spaces in the city represents a serious environmental problem.

The longer it takes a car to find a space (British motorists spend an average of 91 hours a year looking for parking) the more pollutants are emitted needlessly into the atmosphere.

So if we can keep track of free car parking spaces and guide drivers straight to them using an app, we can save energy – and make travel a much better experience in the city.

Another idea to solve the shortage of parking is to adopt a sharing economy approach.

This means that buildings who know they will have empty spaces for any reason – say an employee is on holiday for a week – can rent them out for a day at a time, via the same car parking app.

It’s a win-win situation: the driver can access a convenient space, and the space owner makes some money back on parking spots that aren’t being used.

We’re going to be testing this out at MSP’s Manchester Science Park campus, where the CityVerve HQ is based.

Smart lighting

Some aspects of smart lighting are quite obvious.

Lights that are connected to sensors can be turned off when there is nobody around – this is something we do already.

But the real intelligence behind smart lighting goes further than ‘off and on’.

We can use smart lights as a signalling system – in an emergency situation, for instance, lights could flash red to alert people to get to safety.

Equally, if the lighting system knows that you are the only person entering a car park, and that you have parked in row H, it can ensure that the lights on the way to row H are on full – and the lights in areas outside your path are dimmed.

This would be a much more efficient use of power for lighting – all driven by information from the IoT.

Smart facilities management

Equally, if you can connect appliances and household objects to the IoT, you can monitor them constantly to see if they’re working.

This is incredibly useful from a facilities management perspective.

It alerts the facilities management team the minute that something fails, so that they can go out and perform a fix straight away – on demand and in real time.

And, crucially, it enables the team to achieve a first-time fix, as the IoT can provide important contextual data for the thing that’s broken.

So, if a bulb in a meeting room on the 11th floor of a building goes out, the facilities team will receive an alert to let them know, alongside information about what type of bulb it is.

Providing this level of information empowers the team so that the first time they go to the job, they’re properly equipped with the information they need to fix it, without any to-ing and fro-ing.

Two of our SME partners are contributing work crucial to making this vision a reality, with Asset Mapping connecting buildings across the demonstrator area and SPICA installing a range of their smart sensors.

Breathe easy with the IoT

Manchester has long struggled with maintaining healthy air quality.

Figures show that pollution levels in some areas of Greater Manchester are more than one-and-a-half times the legal limit.

It’s a result of the city’s geographical location and climate, which has been worsened by smoke and nitrous oxide emissions from cars and heavy industry.

Unfortunately, it can make life very difficult for people who suffer from breathing problems caused by things like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Up to now, there have been ways for COPD sufferers to get information about levels of air pollution in different parts of the city, so that they can plan their journeys according to what is healthiest for them.

But testing for air pollution has only previously been done on a periodic basis. This shouldn’t be the case with access to data provided by IoT technology.

Sensors can give us much more valuable data on air quality in specific areas.

We’ll have a real-time picture of what’s going on at a granular level – which can keep COPD sufferers informed through a smartphone app. This is something already being developed in our health and social care theme.

In my view, this looks to be something really special. It promises to bring about a measurable improvement to people’s lives, as well as making our city a healthier place to be.

The city is our environment

The way that we live and work is changing – so it’s time we get a grip on our energy use.

Our approach to energy and the environment is the foundation for everything that we want to achieve.

It’s something that the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, referenced as he recently unveiled new plans to make Manchester one of the world’s greenest cities.

And energy and the environment are fundamental to the CityVerve project too.

They have a tangible impact on all the other strands, interlinking with health and social care, travel and transport, and culture and happiness of our citizens – as hopefully I’ve shown.

A city becomes a smart city when everything is pulled together to make the citizen experience the best it can possibly be.

This is going to be the real benefit that comes out of CityVerve – and a smart approach to energy and the environment is the foundation that underpins it all.

An article by Bev Taylor