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?

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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 on Minneapolis Convention Center
Solar roof panels provide about 5% 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% 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% 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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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