How smart technologies lower the cost of living in a city


Quick Take:  I guess we should call Alan Snook a "hybrid." Although he works with new-fashioned technology, he uses old-fashioned manners and courtesy. Although he is a smart city pioneer, he has a rural lifestyle. Alan lives on 26 acres near York, Pennsylvania, where he raises chickens, bees and fruit.


Alan was formerly involved with a family business and investing. In 2006, he became VP Operations for ibec GLOBAL, a company focused on delivering broadband over power line services to international venues. Today he runs GRID20/20, which makes OptaNODEâ„¢ distribution transformer monitors -- a perfect example of the low-cost, high-value sensors that are enabling cities to monitor and optimize their critical infrastructure.


Below are excerpts from a Q&A I did with Alan that first appeared on the Smart Cities Council website, where you can read the full interview. We thought his comments on his company's role in the smart cities ecosystem would be of interest to smart grid stakeholders. -- Jesse Berst


Which technologies are core to a smart city?

Smart cities will need to start with the staples -- roadways, bridges, electric, water, sewer. We all expect these foundational amenities to work well, and when they don't life seems terrible. But to make a city "sexy," to attract the best and brightest leadership and inhabitants, a city must offer more than just the staples.


Implementing technologies that will improve efficiencies, and lessen waste will need to be applied.  Integration of the various technologies is key; we have to look at things differently, and find solutions that are synergistic. Traditional leadership seems to have operated from a perspective of "this is my silo, don't mess with it," and that attitude is still pervasive in many cities. We've got to get out of this antiquated approach and look at the big picture from a new perspective. We need to assemble information systems that capture data and can create interactive experiences.


What is GRID20/20's role in the smart cities ecosystem?

We help lower the cost of living in a city. Specifically, we can help to make electricity more affordable by creating efficiency enhancements and identifying power losses.


With our transformer monitors, we have the ability to immediately bring about cost savings for cities. Virtually every municipal utility experiences technical losses and theft losses.  Each category of losses can commonly range from 1-3% of total revenue. This equates to millions of dollars that dissipate from the grid.  We locate these points of loss and permit utilities to lower their revenue losses. And that creates revenue that can then be reinvested in other Smart Cities activities.


In addition to helping electric utilities potentially save millions of dollars, we enhance outage notification, permit preventive maintenance, locate overloaded transformer assets and assist with conservation voltage reduction. We also empower utilities to better accommodate future advancements such as renewables and electric vehicles.  In short, we help to improve the quality of life for communities by helping improve the stability of the electric distribution grid.


What does GRID20/20 do better than any other company?

We aim to be the best in the world in the distribution transformer monitoring space. That is our sole focus.  Every action we take at GRID20/20 contributes toward fulfilling this mission.


Are there any common misconceptions about GRID20/20 and its smart city capabilities?

Perhaps the most common misconception is that smart meters will provide utilities with all of the distribution management information they need to create an intelligent grid. Smart meters do a great job of measuring the electricity being used "at the edge" by each customer, and offer other data points. But, in the U.S. alone, there are 2.2 million miles of distribution lines and 50 million transformers. Given the perpetual, dynamic nature of the distribution space (e.g., lightning strikes, auto damage, asset failures, tree damage, etc.), we see transformers as the key data point within the heart of the grid.  In turn, we quickly convert transformers into intelligent nodes and then harvest data from these points.  By combining data from substations, endpoint meters and distribution transformers, grid intelligence becomes a genuine reality.  


While many utilities have not been able to cost justify smart meters, our transformer monitors are easier to cost justify and in certain instances they can yield a Return on Investment (ROI) in just two to three years.