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?

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.

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.

Smart appliances

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.

If the customer allows it, the utility can automatically send a command to the appliance to run during a specific time of the day, Morrison says. (Of course, appliances have to be prepped for the automatic schedule with soap and dishes -- at least until we all have robomaids.) Reliant offers pilot customers a Web portal where they can see how much energy they used during the day and view reports about usage over a few days or weeks. The company also sends emails to let them know about their energy savings.

In the next decade, smart appliances will be able to send diagnostic information to the utility and even send a message to a repair technicians automatically, says Morrison. Some of the latest home appliances, like the Samsung RSG309 Wi-Fi Refrigerator, can use Wi-Fi over home routers today, but future models could tap into the grid directly, he says. For now, they can run apps in a touchscreen display to show things like weather forecasts, schedules of upcoming family events or recipes.

John H. Desmarais, a development manager at GE, says smart appliances can reduce energy use in a home by up to 20%. And appliances are just the start, he says: Once the U.S. adopts a widespread "smart grid" that lets utilities and homeowners access heating and cooling systems remotely, a smart thermostat, tied into the smart grid, could reduce energy use even more, since cooling and heating are responsible for 28% of home energy use.

Desmarais envisions a day when every device in the home will connect to a smart grid. GE has developed a software platform for home energy management called Nucleus that's designed to plug into the smart grid of the future. The grid is not widespread yet, but in the meantime, there are products that take advantage of existing technologies to give people more control over when their appliances run and when they don't. For example, a company called Nest Labs offers a smart thermostat that connects to your home Wi-Fi network and lets you adjust temperature settings using an iPhone or schedule automatic temperature increases or decreases via the Web.

fully connected home illustration
In the home of the future, the smart grid may connect to your appliances, your lights, your air conditioning system and the electric car in your garage. Credit: General Electric.
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