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Smarter utilities make for more resilient cities

Technology that allows utilities to better manage energy and water flow can help urban centres adapt to growth and climate change

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Self-healing grids that help reduce power outages. Sensors that detect rising water levels to better control flooding. Artificial intelligence platforms for utilities that track weather patterns, maintenance records, user demand, and more to optimize resource usage and prevent outages.

These are some of the technologies behind resilient cities – a concept that describes urban centres that can adapt to and withstand the changes that are coming in the decades ahead.

According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report released by the federal government this year, Canada’s climate is warming twice as fast as the global average, meaning that the country faces increased risk of extreme and unpredictable weather events such as flooding, wildfires and storms. Given that people are migrating to Canadaʼs cities from both rural areas and abroad, municipal governments face mounting pressure to prepare for climate change and use resources wisely.

“Implementation and integration of smart technologies are imperative to improve reliability, resilience and efficiency, while allowing increased adoption of renewables and other innovative technologies desired by customers,” says Mark Wilson, Eastern Canada power sector lead for global design firm Stantec.

Smart technology will ultimately see cities embed sensors in everything from traffic lights to water meters, which will allow the better collection of data – data that can be used to develop solutions for a more efficient and sustainable society.

It’s important to remember, however, that itʼs the people and processes behind it that will determine a successful transformation to smart systems, according to Pete Perciavalle, senior vice-president of intelligent platforms at Stantec.

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“The technology is the most fascinating and fun part, but technology alone doesn’t solve problems unless it’s put into the right business context,” he says. “Stantec doesn’t run to the technology first. We look at this in a much more programmatic framework so the technology implementations achieve the desired business outcomes and innovation becomes more systemic in the client’s organization.”

Mr. Perciavalle, who has helped a number of North American cities transform their utilities in the new digital age, says the process begins with strong leadership, big-picture planning and a willingness to take some calculated risks.

“You have to understand what the desired future state of the utility is first, then apply the technology and evaluate if it will produce the desired results on your utility,” Mr. Perciavalle says. Legacy operating systems may or may not need to be reworked or replaced to make way for new technologies such as smart meters or sensors.


You have to understand what the desired future state of the utility is first, then apply the technology and evaluate if it will produce the desired results on your utility.

“The term ‘smart city’ is new and still being defined in the market. We don’t look at a smart city as a product or series of products. A smart city isn’t a thing. It has more to do with a utility or city’s state of digital maturity,” Mr. Perciavalle says. “Across any city or utility enterprise, data needs to be ubiquitous, available and accessible, regardless of its source.”

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Little changes,
big difference
in Atlanta

One example of how cities can approach smart utilities can be seen in the City of Atlanta. The city is using sensors to track waste water flow levels, particularly during storms, and is compiling and analyzing customer call-centre data to build a more predictive and responsive operation.

“It’s a lot of little changes that people may not see, but that can make a big difference,” says Torri Martin, interim deputy commissioner and chief of innovation at the City of Atlanta’s department of watershed management.

While it takes money to adopt and implement new technologies, Mr. Martin says the investment outweighs the risk of doing too little. “The risk is that you pay more in the long run,” for repairs and replacement of infrastructure, he says. “Falling behind can really impact the way you can do things and it limits the things you can do if you’re not careful. ... The key is keeping up.”

Mr. Martin cites the development of a new water-storage facility at the Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta as an example of smart city innovation. The project will enhance the reliability of the operation with improved automation and ensure a 30-day supply of water for the cityʼs inhabitants. “It’s about building the resources to prevent a water shortage,” Mr. Martin says.

Utilities must be open to change to remain resilient, Mr. Martin adds.

“A lot of people think innovation is technology, but it’s not. It’s about doing new things and the process and procedure of doing business,” he says. “People, policy and process. Those are key for any transformation.”

In New Brunswick, provincial power utility New Brunswick Power Corp. (NB Power) is developing a smart grid, including a proposal for a smart meter program that would wirelessly connect consumers to the utilityʼs smart grid.

The utility is seeking approval from the province’s Energy and Utilities Board to buy 350,000 meters and deploy them in customersʼ homes.

NB Power chief executive officer Gaëtan Thomas says the system will help its consumers more accurately calculate and conserve their energy usage, while also making it easier for line workers to locate outages and restore power more quickly.

“Smart grid [technology] enables two-way communications with our customers and will provide direct intelligence that will make the grid more reliable and more resilient in a world that is more impacted than ever by climate change, while timely informing our customers,” Mr. Thomas says. “It also provides opportunities for our customers to better manage their energy costs – creating a true partnership between our customers and their utility.”

The program is ambitious, but Mr. Thomas believes it’s the right path for utilities looking to lower costs for consumers and protect the environment longer term. “Utilities have to be leading edge. They need to embrace change,” Mr. Thomas says. “We are doing everything we can to be on top of change.”

He says digitalization of a utility is about changing technology, but also the behaviour and mindset of various stakeholders. “You can never underestimate change when you have a public utility,” Mr. Thomas says. “It’s no longer about change management. It’s change leadership. Our job as leaders is to ensure we get buy-in from stakeholders, including employees and customers.”

‘Embracing change, engaging customers’

Stantec’s Mr. Wilson says stakeholder engagement and customer experience is more important than ever in all industries, including utilities.

“The utilities that will succeed in the future are those that will be able to package up and provide the experience customers are looking for; not just providing energy,” Mr. Wilson says.

For some, that includes incorporating renewable energy, such as wind and power, into their systems as it becomes more accepted and cost effective for consumers and governments.

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Editing by STEPHANIE CHAN, illustration by ISABEL FOO, creative direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI, development by KYLE YOUNG, design by JEANINE BRITO

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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