How Charlotte drives economic growth through sustainable innovation

How Charlotte drives economic growth through sustainable innovation

Editor's Note: To learn more about smart cities and hear from Jesse Berst be sure to check out VERGE@Greenbuild this fall, November 12-13, in San Francisco.

I want to tell you about an initiative that is emblematic of an important trend – the intersection of smart grids and smart cities. It also includes several innovative approaches other cities and utilities may want to investigate.

Originally announced by former president Bill Clinton in 2010 at the Clinton Global Initiative, Envision: Charlotte has as its goal to dramatically improve the sustainability of downtown Charlotte as an engine for economic growth. The North Carolina city is sometimes called "energy capital USA" because the nearby region is home to more than 175 energy companies, employing more than 13,000 people.

The initiative is notable for several reasons:

  • Public/private partnership: The initiative includes Duke Energy, the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Bank of America and many others.
  • More than just electricity: The initiative embraces water as well, and will someday extend to other aspects of sustainability.
  • Public kiosks to deliver usage information along with recommendations to drive behavior change.
  • Linking "smart" with "jobs": Many utilities have faltered in their efforts to sell their modernization efforts to their ratepayers and regulators. Envision:Charlotte is being careful to associate the initiative directly with economic development. "Envision:Charlotte is creating a model for communities in demonstrating the link between sustainability and growth," said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Electric Power

Last year, the initiative worked on the electric side. Duke Energy will gather and aggregate energy usage data from about 70 participating buildings in Charlotte.

Building tenants will see the nearly real-time commercial energy consumption data for the community and suggested actions they can take to reduce their personal energy usage in the office.

Water

Just last month, Envision:Charlotte extended into a second model program called Smart Water Now. I discussed this latest step with Mike Brander, vice president of global energy and utilities for Verizon Wireless. He says the goal is to reduce water consumption in the downtown area by 20 percent over five years.

Brander thinks water does not get its fair share of attention when it comes to its contribution to true sustainability. (I agree.) He says Verizon is trying to get ahead of the curve by moving some winning concepts from the electricity sector to the water sector.

Itron (via its SmartSynch subsidiary) is providing the communications modules along with other network infrastructure. The system will use Verizon's 4G LTE network to aggregate the data and send it back to kiosks where users can get a near-real-time look at their consumption.

Like its sister program for electricity, Smart Water Now will aggregate information into a single number representing the total uptown usage, then drive awareness and behavior change to reduce consumption.

The smart cities movement is already well underway in Europe and Asia. I predict it will soon gather steam in North America as well for a very simple reason – competition. North American cities are competing with their global rivals to attract talent and jobs. Smart city infrastructure will soon become essential to remain competitive.

And you can't have a smart city unless you have smart energy and smart water. As a result, the city's utility is either a path to a better future, or an obstacle. Common wisdom has it that municipal utilities will fulfill this role, but investor-owned utilities (IOU) may not. IOUs, some say, may drag their feet.

That's why it is so encouraging to see an IOU such as Duke not merely agreeing to come along for the ride, but actively leading one of its constituent cities into the future. After all of the negative press and all of the negative comments from politicians after recent storms, it was refreshing to read a positive comment from Mayor Foxx: "I applaud the leadership in innovation from our utility and the solution partners with whom they are working … Together we are working to make Center City Charlotte the most environmentally sustainable center city on the planet."

Editor's Note: This story is republished with permission from SmartGridNews.com, the Internet's oldest, largest and highest-ranked smart grid site. Visit for up-to-the-minute analysis of smart grid trendssmart grid technology and smart grid companies.