he convergence of the digital and physical worlds known as the Internet of Things, in which sensor-driven data from objects (including us) will be connected and collected in the cloud, inspires visions of life-saving advances in everything from highway safety to health care. Among its biggest challenges and potentially greatest achievements, though, will be to reinvent one of our most critical and most outdated infrastructures, the electric power grid, and so help save the planet from the worst effects of climate change.

For all the concern about greenhouse gas emissions and a warming planet, the global demand for energy is going nowhere but up, as demographers predict an increase in population from more than seven billion today to more than 11 billion in 2100. The good news is that this monumental challenge dovetails with an advance in technology that may just be capable of meeting it.  Already, plug-in electric cars are on the rise—sales jumped in the U.S. by 128% between 2012 and 2014. More households are using rooftop solar panels. Localized microgrids and distributed energy are gaining in popularity.

The world is getting smarter, and key advances in digital and information technology are paving the way for an historic breakthrough in the way electricity is managed and controlled, leading to a more resilient, responsive, and efficient public power supply, otherwise known as the “smart grid”.

“Today, we are seeing the convergence of information and communications technology and the Internet of Things,” says Dr. Rajit Gadh, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Smart Grid Energy Research Center. “Now we have physical devices that can be monitored. The electricity can be monitored. The voltage can be monitored. The power consumption can be monitored.”

Making the grid smarter begins by adding a layer of technologies, including data-producing sensors, advanced data analytics, and smart meters that give energy managers the greater clarity and comprehension they need to make the power system optimally efficient.

Among the first benefits of the intelligent grid is to let energy providers fine-tune exactly where and when power is needed, while smart thermostats tell consumers how to reduce their consumption to save the most money. “One thing we’re looking at is demand response and power containment programs,” explains Farah Saeed, an energy and power systems consultant at Frost & Sullivan. “These have a strong emphasis on empowering customers to control their power consumption whether it’s in the form of getting alerts through their smart meter or in-home displays or through a smart thermostat.” The new grid will also enable power-consumption alerts by phone.

In the future envisioned by creators of the smart grid, there will be no wasted energy, no blackouts, no unexpected spikes in demand. To get there, says Saeed, tech and software firms from Fortune 500 companies to tiny startups are in the process of building better tools for data collection and analytics. “We’ve seen a lot of vendors moving into this space,” says Saeed, “and some are traditional IT companies, but then there have been an abundance of startup companies in the last three to five years that we’ve seen really blossom in this market and that are looking to grow.”

The smart-grid future also embraces energy sources that will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere. Until recently, renewable energy sorted badly with power grids, coming online at unpredictable times and in unpredictable quantities. But new storage technologies are smoothing out supply to the grid, and the declining price of rooftop solar and the undeniable environmental benefits have made renewables impossible to ignore for consumers as well. (In the U.S., a new solar project goes up every 2.5 minutes).

Efforts to modernize the electric grid, however, cannot keep pace with factors such as the impact of aging infrastructure, the increased severity and frequency of weather events, and the risks from physical and cyber attacks. Many communities, businesses, and universities are moving to improve their resilience to vulnerabilities of the “macro” grid by deploying microgrids.

Microgrids let customers put sources of energy generation, storage and control on their sites and in their communities to meet between 80 and 100 percent of their average power needs. Microgrids give communities, businesses, and public institutions such as hospitals greater energy resilience, reliability, security, and choice about the amount of renewable energy they want to incorporate into their power systems.

Partially as a response to super-storm Sandy, New York State has an initiative underway called Reforming Energy Vision (REV) aimed at transforming its energy infrastructure to drive greater technological innovation, increase competitiveness and resiliency, and accelerate the adoption of renewable energy. A key part of REV is the New York Prize program, in which dozens of communities across New York State have been awarded grants to conduct feasibility studies for community microgrids.

As part of its Social Innovation Business, Hitachi is working with 10 of these communities to assess the technical viability of a community microgrid. Todd Price, senior vice president for Hitachi’s Microgrid Solutions business, says, “New York is leading the country in its efforts to facilitate a customer-centric energy infrastructure where cost, reduced emissions, and greater energy reliability are central planks of their vision. However, many other states are close on New York’s heels in their recognition that a different model is needed.”

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The Tokyo suburb of Kashiwa-no-ha becomes a model “smart city,” connecting all its infrastructures through an intelligent data network

Communities around the world are looking to update energy policies to meet current exigencies, whether by boosting renewables and reducing their carbon footprint or by making their power systems more resilient in case of natural disaster. Resiliency is especially critical to decision-makers in Japan following the disaster at its Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 and the tsunami that caused it.

Motivated by the need for both greater resiliency and a cleaner environment, Kashiwa-no-ha, a 675-acre “city” in suburban Tokyo, has made a promising start on devising energy solutions for the smart city of the future. A collaboration of the public and private sectors, universities, Hitachi, and others, the project has set out to create a model of urban planning that puts sustainability, efficiency, health, and resiliency at its core. Having completed its first phase last year, Kashiwa-no-ha now boasts a sensor-laden energy network that unites the entire city’s infrastructure, that is resilient, and that incorporates new local producers of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power.

The Kashiwa-no-ha energy system feeds real-time information back to a Smart Grid Center, which controls the city’s electricity, gas, and water. Applying big-data analytics and data-visualization to that information gives both producers and power customers the feedback they need to increase the system’s overall efficiency.

Resiliency is built in as well: In an emergency, the city’s power supply can break off from the main grid and switch over to a solar-powered microgrid. Backup energy is available through solar generators as well as innovative storage technology, including a massive lithium-ion battery. Perhaps the cleverest resiliency feature this smart city has introduced: Its electric car-sharing program helps reduce the city’s fuel needs but can also be used as a source of electricity in the event of an emergency. Building this type of resilience into infrastructure is part of Hitachi’s broader focus on Social Innovation.

One important goal of the Kashiwa-no-ha project is to support the region’s goal of a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, as well as the greater goal of a low-carbon Japanese society.

o are other countries, including Japan, whose Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City was built by a public-private partnership between Hitachi, local universities, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, and other parties. At the heart of this Smart City is a micogrid which draws much of its energy from distributed rooftop solar panels and battery storage and uses a Smart Center, powered by Hitachi’s Area Energy Management Solution (AEMS), which provides detailed analytics on the grid while swiftly switching loads between buildings based on supply and demand. This efficient approach has allowed the city to cut power consumption by 26%.

Across the ocean, on the UCLA campus, Dr. Gadh has likewise spearheaded development of a microgrid for the university that is even able to draw power from an on-campus electric-vehicle charging program. Gadhs’ team is prototyping plug-in devices to measure and manage the power consumed by on-campus refrigerators, clothes dryers, LED lighting, and air conditioners, making UCLA what he calls a “living laboratory” for converting data into energy efficiency.

“You can take all of that data and make decisions in real-time or even ahead of time based on projections,” he says. “None of that was possible before.”

To learn more about Hitachi Social Innovation, visit http://social-innovation.hitachi.com/.​

How Social Innovation is answering urban challenges of the future

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