Urban tech: From Masdar to Main Street?

Residents of Masdar City in the Middle East have smart appliances, use electricity from a solar power plant and get around by robotaxi. When will you do the same?

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking some initial steps toward building more-connected roadways. It will conduct a yearlong test of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting this fall. Test cars will connect to each other and to the road to be alerted to imminent crash situations, construction zones and more. The use of such wireless communications systems could lead to an 80 percent reduction in accidents, according to the NHTSA.

While the benefits of robotic public transit seem obvious, there are also some equally obvious concerns, including liability. Aarjav Trivedi, the COO of RideCell, an Atlanta-based automated fleet-management company, says there are many legal questions about who would be at fault in a collision between a robotaxi and another car, how autonomous vehicles will be insured, and even how a city will deal with the eventual problem of labor disputes for those who are employed by the city's official cab companies.

Hernandez estimates that semi-autonomous cars that do much of their own steering on highways could appear in 10 years, but full autonomous driving is at least 20 years away -- which should give governments time to work on questions of liability and other concerns as they build the infrastructure to support driverless cars.

Solar municipal power

Masdar City is "carbon neutral" in that it does not draw energy from the regional power grid, and instead generates all of its own electricity from solar power, at least for now. (As the city grows, there will be an increased need to use energy that is not generated within the city limits, but officials say the energy will still come from renewable sources.)

In a small municipality, solar-only is a feasible power option, but what if you had to provide electricity for a metropolis the size of Los Angeles?

Today, alternative energy sources typically augment the electricity produced by coal and natural gas power plants, according to Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at Gartner. But he says companies such as Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy are developing new technologies to make solar power collection more viable.

While most solar power in the United States is currently generated by rooftop panels that provide direct power for appliances and for heating and air conditioning units (called distributed solar), BrightSource uses centralized solar plants to store and then transport energy using electrical transmission lines, says Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman.

The energy company broke ground in the California desert for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in October 2010. The massive solar plant will use about 170,000 mirrors to capture the sun's energy. Software tracks the position of the mirrors and makes fine adjustments to each mirror for the best power draw.

The Ivanpah solar plant, which will be the world's biggest when it's completed in 2013, uses adjustable angled mirrors to focus the sun's rays for power collection. Credit: BrightSource Energy.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah complex, which is backed by a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan and private capital, will generate about 370 megawatts of power per year for PG&E and Southern California Edison when it's completed in 2013. That's enough to power 140,000 homes, and nearly twice the amount of solar power generated commercially last year in the U.S., according to BrightSource. But it will still just be a supplement to existing power generation sources.

The problem, Wachs says, is that many states are not equipped to transmit that power. Last year, about 11,000 miles of natural gas pipelines were installed in the United States. In comparison, says Wachs, about 700 miles of solar transmission lines were installed in 2010. So while Los Angeles can benefit greatly from the Ivanpah plant, other cities are currently left without access to its solar power.

That's the case for Minneapolis, says city energy manager John Millberg. The city has a goal to use about 1 megawatt of renewable energy per year for all city services by 2014. Today, the city uses about 800 kilowatts per year, aided by a rooftop solar installation on the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Millberg says Minneapolis would be open to purchasing power from another state that has a massive solar power plant, but today the costs are too high. The city does have plans to install a transmission line for wind energy that's generated south of the city, he adds.

Solar roof panels provide about 5 percent of the power used by the Minneapolis Convention Center.Credit: City of Minneapolis.

Like Minneapolis, many state and municipal governments have renewable energy initiatives on the books. California, for instance, has passed legislation requiring utilities that serve the state to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, despite concerns about higher costs for consumers and businesses. The city of San Francisco has an even more ambitious goal of using 100 percent renewable power by 2020. And Austin, Texas, has already achieved its goal of running the city government entirely with renewable energy.

Driven by initiatives like these, solar will inevitably grow in importance as a power source for U.S. cities, with a mix of rooftop solar panels that feed energy directly to homes and businesses and utility-generated solar power that augments power from existing sources, according to Gartner's Velosa. Several small plants, such as the 32-megawatt Long Island Solar Farm in Upton, N.Y., and the 30-megawatt Cimarron Solar Facility in Colfax County, N.M., are already up and running.

"Depending on how you cut the data, we have hundreds of plants in the utility-centered photovoltaic market, ranging from 0.2-to-0.5-gigawatt behemoths to 5-megawatt projects," says Velosa. "Many still lack financing, but [the sector] is extremely active and dynamic."

For the foreseeable future, however, solar is unlikely to be the sole or even primary source of power for most U.S. cities, according to Velosa. The obvious problem, he says, is storage -- energy generated during the day has to be stored at night, which is why it's important to watch the solar storage technology market, not just advances in solar generation. "Storage is critical for solar, since utilities are measured on consistent power," he says.

Still, Velosa is bullish on solar's future in the U.S. "Given the experience in Germany" -- a world leader in solar power generation -- "over the past decade, if the financials make sense, we can expect very high adoption rates for solar as prices continue to decrease," he says.

Into the future

In many ways, sustainable urban technology is in a state that's similar to where information technology found itself several decades ago: It's struggling to overcome a serious lack of standards, bureaucratic tangles that have arisen because technologists didn't understand what business units needed and vice versa, and staid attitudes among the powers that be, who assert that the technology in place works just fine for most of the population. But look at IT today: It's a problem-solver, a business-enabler and an innovation-driver in most companies.

Green IT can take a similar path in the United States, but real progress will happen only after we overcome a variety of challenges on issues ranging from funding to legislation and consumer acceptance. Masdar City shows that technologies like robotaxis, smart appliances and solar power are feasible on a citywide scale. Now cities in the U.S. need to take a long look at what it will take to replicate those successes here.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

This story, "Urban tech: From Masdar to Main Street?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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