Navigant Research Blog

Using Applications to Empower Smart Cities

— December 9, 2014

In late November, the crowdsourced smartphone app Waze released a stunning visualization that showed the traffic flowing through New York City on a recent September day.  Resembling blood flow though a body, cars move through the arteries and veins of city streets and highways, slowed by both collisions and general congestion.  Waze collects data via smartphone owners that allow their location (and speed and direction) to be captured and aggregated, providing real-time information on traffic in a city.  When using Waze, drivers can be alerted to new incidents like accidents and police on the road, and the app can even suggest new routes for a faster ride.

Crowdsourcing apps like Waze, ridesharing apps like Ridejoy, and home control apps like Nest may also be a boon to some of the smart city initiatives being developed and planned worldwide.  Numerous cities in the world are adapting IT for their infrastructure and streamlining operations for their departments.  Navigant Research’s report Navigant Research Leaderboard Report: Smart City Suppliers identifies the promising companies that have demonstrated advanced approaches and penetration in this sector.  Most smart city initiatives begin with public transportation and traffic monitoring, as they are critical services for citizens, and promote commerce as well.

Short on Cash

There’s a basic challenge for cities that want to pursue programs like these, though: limited municipal funding.  In the first world, or in a few examples in the developing world, cities have signed multimillion-dollar contracts, paying large IT and equipment companies for equipment and consulting services for smart city initiatives.  These large price tags limit the adoption of (large) smart city programs in the developing world and in smaller cities and towns.  Crowdsource apps could provide a solution.

If the data from crowdsourced apps like Waze could be shared with municipal agencies, data limitations would virtually disappear.  Instead of paying millions for a full service solution, a city could hire a cadre of data analysts to examine the trends in traffic, identify collision hot spots, and use the aggregated data for long-term traffic planning, supplanting expensive traffic studies.  One example of an interesting use of this kind of data is New York University’s (NYU’s) visualization of taxi rides in New York City.

Taxi Confidential

Using data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, NYU researchers created a rich queryable database where taxi demand is revealed visually, and the impact of major disruptive events like Hurricanes Sandy and Irene on taxi rides can be understood (namely, that few taxis ventured into the power-less regions of lower Manhattan).  MIT has, in turn, developed an interactive website using the taxi data to demonstrate the value of ridesharing.   The academic insight has yet to be used for city policy, but as the analysis improves, such applications will surely follow.

Certainly, there are obstacles with this approach.  The first is privacy.  Aggregated urban mobility data can be anonymized.  Yet, the idea of governments gaining access to individual citizens’ whereabouts, regardless of the source of the data, may make a fair number of people uncomfortable.  Open questions prevail: Could mobility data be used for forensic purposes?  Since Waze is owned by Google, what other information could be associated and shared?  These questions and many others will have to be addressed through real deployment.  As has been seen through companies like Uber, which is now causing taxi medallion prices to fall, disruptive technologies can shake up the status quo.  City governments have not traditionally been the locus of innovation, but the smartphone in your pocket may change that in the near future.

 

International Innovation Thrives in the Bay Area

— December 8, 2014

Just over 69 years ago, the United Nations (UN) Charter was signed in San Francisco.  That Charter, bringing the UN into creation, has many social, cultural, and humanitarian directives, as well as articles aimed at “international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic character.”  That spirit of cooperation is alive in San Francisco, as evidenced by many international innovation showcases that aim to spur collaboration between the United States and other countries, spread some of the startup magic found across the Bay Area, and simply showcase innovation around the globe.

For example, the German government helps sponsor the German Accelerator in both Silicon Valley and New York.  Its upcoming Captivate event is a startup pitch fest that brings German and German-American funders and entrepreneurs together with brief company pitch sessions.  The Japan Society of Northern California is sponsoring its annual Innovation Showcase in early 2015 to highlight Japanese startups and award the title of “Emerging Leader” to one Japanese and one American entrepreneur whose companies are relevant to both U.S. and Japanese innovation.  The City of San Francisco itself helps spur economic connections with China through its ChinaSF program.  ChinaSF leaders say the program has recruited over 50 companies from the Bay Area to China and created more than 300 jobs since 2008.

The Intelligent Factory

The most recent of these events was the California France Forum on Energy Efficiency Technologies, held in late November in San Francisco.  Focused on manufacturing and the smart factory concept, where IT is deeply integrated into the energy performance of industrial facilities, the forum was sponsored by Prime, a Paris-based high tech incubator, and French energy major EDF.  I spoke on a panel that examined the challenges and potential role of industrial energy management (see Navigant Research’s report, Industrial Energy Management Systems), along with Ethan Rogers of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), who discussed the potential energy savings in the industrial sector.

Specifically, Rogers identified ACEEE’s scenario-based modeling that determined that the U.S. industrial sector could save between $7 billion and $25 billion in annual energy costs by 2035 through energy efficiency gains.  Also on the panel was Arnaud Legrand, CEO of Energiency, a spinoff from Orange/France Telecom that aims to use big data analysis to improve industrial energy use through a software as a service-based solution, and Michel Morvan, co-founder of CoSMo Company.

CoSMo’s approach, based in the study of complex systems, is to use simulation to understand the regimes of behavior of industrial systems, accounting for supply chain, energy uses, workforce, and other inputs.  Morvan views the factory as a system of systems, and his company has developed approaches to simulate the core elements as well as the interconnections between the systems.  In this model, the goal is full energy optimization.  CoSMo is set to fully launch in mid-2015.

 

Green Button Pushes Useful Usage Data

— December 3, 2014

The installation of advanced metering infrastructure is helping to transform the U.S. utility industry.  While over 43 million advanced meters have been installed, most electricity consumers have seen few benefits from the new device on their property.  Recently, the government has been making an effort to improve the accessibility of data from advanced meters.

The Green Button Initiative is an industry-led effort developed in response to the federal call-to-action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their electricity usage data in a user-friendly format.  A key focus of Green Button is standardizing electricity usage data; this will allow many stakeholders to use the data without the burden of converting proprietary formats.  Energy consumers, third-party software/application developers, public institutions, energy efficiency organizations, and utilities/energy service providers will all benefit from increased visibility of detailed electricity consumption data.

Developers of software and applications to help consumers understand and reduce their electricity consumption may have the most to gain.  Many advanced systems to manage energy use in buildings are already in operation; these will only be improved by easy access to more granular data from utilities.  Some solutions that can take advantage of this newly available data are discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Building Energy Management Systems

Tip of the Iceberg

Despite successful programs with many utilities, the Green Button Initiative has only scratched the surface of its full potential.  To date, at least 50 utilities have implemented the program, with a few dozen more committed.  Among the participating utilities, the amount of data available and the support provided to customers varies greatly.  In fact, some utilities are only providing monthly meter readings to their customers through Green Button.  This information has generally been available to customers online for years, and it does not provide enough new detail to enable many behavioral changes.

What’s more, many utilities are not actively promoting the availability of this data or helping their customers understand how to interpret the information.  Further collaboration between utilities and industry stakeholders is required, and a more developed app marketplace will be crucial to Green Button’s success.

Competitive Solutions

A major focus of the Green Button Initiative is to facilitate the development of third-party software programs and applications that use utility data to provide consumers with an easily understandable view of their consumption.  One interesting application is wotz, developed by a group of graduate students at the University of California, Irvine.  This application runs in a web browser and provides a simple to use, graphically pleasing interface to view and understand energy consumption over time.

Wotz relates household electricity use to more easily understood terms, such as a certain number of MacBook charges.  The program also includes challenges with guidance to reduce consumption over time and can be connected with Facebook to share results and benchmark against friends.

Another program utilizing Green Button-based data takes the idea of benchmarking and social media-based energy competitions even further.  Simple Energy, based in Boulder, Colorado, has a similar program with easy visualization and also features a community leaderboard that allows users to see how they stack up with their neighbors – as well as electricity consumers around the world.

 

Energy Efficiency Transforms HVAC

— December 2, 2014

The federal requirements for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are about to become much stricter.  Starting January 1, 2015, residential split system heat pumps, single package air conditioners, and single package heat pumps in the United States must have seasonal energy efficiency ratios (SEERs) of 14, an 8% increase in efficiency over the current SEER requirement of 13.  The SEER rating is used to gauge the operating efficiency of cooling systems.  It is the ratio of the cooling output of equipment over a cooling season divided by the electrical input.  Indeed, driven in part by tightening regulations but also by a larger push toward greater energy efficiency, HVAC equipment is undergoing substantial changes.  When minimum SEER requirements increased in the United States from 10 to 13 in 2006, innovations in compressors, refrigerants, and system design drove efficiency improvements.  Today, several air conditioner options provide efficiency in excess of 20 SEER.

Unfortunately, there are natural limitations on efficiency gains that can be made on current equipment.  As a result, new, more efficient HVAC equipment, such as variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems, is gaining market share in the United States.  VRF systems represent a paradigm shift in how heat is transferred throughout a building and can provide energy savings of 34% compared to current HVAC solutions.  Originally developed in Asia, the technology is now gaining market share in the United States.  Though Asian-based companies dominate VRF manufacturing, the landscape is shifting through joint ventures, such as Johnson Controls’ yet-to-be-finalized tie up with Hitachi, and through the establishment of manufacturing operations in the United States, such as Daikin’s American manufacturing line in Houston.

Further Changes Ahead

Future gains in efficiency can still be gained through better control and wider adoption of currently available equipment.  However, some are looking even deeper at reducing the energy consumption of HVAC systems.  Currently, HVAC equipment ejects heat from a building into its surroundings.  Dr. Aaswath Raman, a research associate at Stanford University, is developing technology to dump unwanted heat into outer space.  Dr. Raman has engineered a material capable of manipulating the energy levels of the light it reflects so that sunlight can be reflected and transformed to a wavelength that sends it out of Earth’s atmosphere.   In effect, it can transfer the heat generated in a building by the sun to the much larger and much cooler heat sink of outer space.  Initial tests have demonstrated that Raman’s material can maintain a 4.9°C temperature difference between a box coated in the material and the outdoors.  If deployed in buildings, the impact on HVAC requirements would trigger a new wave of innovation in HVAC equipment.

For a more detailed look at how the HVAC market is changing, please join Navigant Research’s free webinar, Innovations in Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning, on Tuesday, December 9, 2014 at 2 p.m. EST.   Click here to register.

 

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