On the outskirts of Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf, just southeast of Qatar and not far from Iran, a sparkling new metropolis called Masdar City is rising in the desert. The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company began construction of Masdar in 2008, and so far the site features one major street and a few residential and research buildings in its tech institute, and it has grand intentions of becoming the first municipality powered entirely by renewable energy sources.
Americans might have expected Silicon Valley to lead such a charge, but City 2.0 is emerging halfway across the world.
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In Masdar City, a personal rapid transport system buzzes passengers from one building to another in driverless "robotaxis." (The city does not allow any personal automobiles.) A solar power plant heats the city's water and provides electricity to a water treatment facility. Every electrical outlet in the city is monitored, and the total municipal power usage is reported on a water tower standing in the city center. Smart meters, connected into a smart grid, know all kinds of details about power usage -- such as when a dryer is running too long.
Designed by the British architects Foster + Partners as a showcase for sustainable architecture and engineering, the city is expected to have 40,000 residents when it's fully built in 2025. While few if any American cities have the financial equivalent of the Abu Dhabi government's deep pockets to bankroll investments in energy-saving infrastructure, some of Masdar's cutting-edge energy technologies -- smart appliances in the home, renewable energy sources, and clean, self-driving personal transit -- may be coming to a city near you. Here's how these urban technologies are evolving in the United States.
The dishwasher in your kitchen is not that smart. Sure, some models let you program a wash cycle for late at night when electricity rates are low. But they can't read and respond intelligently to your electric meter -- a capability that would make it possible to, for instance, have them automatically turn on when the rates during the day are at their lowest.
One of the key problems, says John Millberg, an energy manager with the Minneapolis city government, is that many utilities don't offer tiered cost structures during the day. So even if homes were equipped with smart appliances and smart meters, there would be no incentive to do more to manage power usage than choosing between running appliances during the day or at night. Moving to a tiered structure would require a mandate from the city's public utilities commission, he says.
Texas and California are two states that do have tiered pricing. That's why Texas-based Reliant Energy started a pilot program with a few General Electric employees in Houston to try out smart appliances. Each test appliance -- including water heaters, dishwashers and clothes dryers -- has a communications module that uses the ZigBee wireless protocol, says Wayne Morrison, the manager of smart energy partnerships at Reliant, who is in charge of the pilot. The modules connect to a smart meter that reports exact usage back to the utility in real time.