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Envision Charlotte: Putting Data at the Heart of Smart City Programs

Eric Woods — March 10, 2017

Established in 2011 as a non-profit, public-private partnership to improve energy efficiency and sustainability in the City of Charlotte in North Carolina, Envision Charlotte has a particular place in the growing list of smart city projects in the United States. The founding project was a collaboration between Duke Energy, Charlotte Center City Partners, and a number of supplier partners, including Cisco, Itron, and Verizon, to make 61 large commercial buildings in downtown Charlotte more energy efficient. Today, the program has expanded to tackle a range of projects and sustainability goals, including energy efficiency, water conservation, and air quality. Moreover, the project is having a direct influence on other US cities through the development of the Envision America program.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Amy Aussieker, the executive director for Envision Charlotte, to discuss progress. Aussieker outlined the four key pillars the program currently focuses on:

  • Energy: The program continues to build on the success of its initial project with the city’s commercial buildings. The aim of that project was to reduce building energy consumption by 20%, and it has so far delivered around $20 million in energy savings. A grant from the US Department of Energy is now enabling the project to be rolled out to an additional 200 buildings. The project also seeded a commercial program from Duke Energy to address the potential for energy savings in offices across its service territories.
  • Water: Improving water efficiency and quality is the next priority for the program. Itron, for example, has deployed smart water meters in 22 downtown buildings that are part of the original energy savings program. The goal is to collect data on water consumption for a year to help shape water management programs and to develop benchmarks for building managers. Envision Charlotte is also working with Charlotte Water, the local water company, as it looks to meet growing pressures on the regional water system.
  • Air quality: A growing area of focus for Envision Charlotte is air pollution. Car and truck usage are the biggest contributors to air quality problems in the city, and projects are being established to encourage people to reduce vehicle miles and use local transit systems. However, there is little data available on local air quality conditions, so it is difficult to monitor the impact of specific interventions. The team is examining how it can create benchmarks to show the effectiveness of different programs.
  • Waste reduction: The fourth pillar of the program is waste reduction. Envision Charlotte is trying to help reduce the 5 million pounds of solid waste sent to landfills by the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County residents and businesses every day. This is another area where the team is looking to collect more data, particularly around recycling rates and how to improve them.

Looking Ahead, Data Is Key

Envision Charlotte is building on its initial successes, looking to scale up proven solutions and identifying new issues to address. The program also continues to extend its links in the community and has developed close ties with the University of North Carolina, which is hoping to develop a smart city center of excellence.

One thing common to all of the program’s initiatives is the importance given to data collection and analysis. Data is seen as key to understanding the root causes of the issues being addressed and to developing solutions that are effective and viable. Using sensors and smart devices to gather that data is not a technical demonstration exercise, but rather, a necessary step to developing effective programs for change. This helps ensure that investments are made in the right projects while also helping to build momentum and ensure successful programs feed enthusiasm for the next project.

The recent announcement of the 2017 Envision America award winners provides further evidence of the Charlotte team’s impact. The program leverages the success of Envision Charlotte to accelerate deployment of innovative technologies in other cities. The aim is for cities to learn from the experience of Charlotte, but also to find their own model fitting local circumstances and priorities. Charlotte is becoming an important node in the growing network of smart cities worldwide that are sharing ideas and developing robust and effective approaches to common city problems.

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