Cities aren't smart if they aren't on: Why cities and utilities must partner

At the Smart Cities Council, we often point out that electric companies are among the best partners a city can have. They often have complementary goals with expensive infrastructure that’s better to share than duplicate.

So why aren’t their stronger partnerships? There are some obstacles, to be sure, but Council Lead Partner Edison Electric Institute is working to tear them down. Through a series of summits, utilities and cities are working together to strategize ways of building partnerships that deliver real results to their communities.

We held the second summit last week and have summarized a few of the actions below. (Get a recap of the first summit here.) You’re invited to join us for the third and final summit at Smart Cities Week, October 2, in Washington, D.C. Register now and make your voice heard. — Kevin Ebi

Smart cities and electricity go hand in hand.

“What a momentary outage means to a customer today is very different than what it meant 15 years ago,” said Gregg Knight, Chief Customer Officer of CenterPoint Energy. “Our city isn’t smart if it isn’t on.”

About a hundred representatives of cities and utilities gathered in Houston, TX, on August 16, to discuss ways to collaborate. The summit was the second in a series this year planned by Edison Electric Institute.

Modernizing regulation
One of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of more collaborative efforts is regulation. It’s not consistent from state to state (or in some cases, even city to city). And while the regulations were well-intentioned when they were written, what were once consumer protections are now barriers that result in inefficiency and waste.

But it’s easy to use regulation as an excuse. How do you change it? During the working groups participants brainstormed several strategies, which largely fit into two buckets: clarifying goals and educating the public.

While the participants all wanted their cities to be smarter, the “smart cities” label itself, they suggested was too generic. By itself, it doesn’t communicate the value to the communities. In some communities, smart has practically become a synonym for green environmental practices. In others, it refers more to resilience. In still others, it means making other services more intelligent.

They suggested cities and electric companies both need to talk to each other to agree on specific goals — goals that benefit both entities. Other key elements here are a local focus, clear solution sets and tangible steps.

Once those goals are set, then an education campaign is in order. Help the public see what’s at stake and how citizens can benefit. It’s easier to make change when there’s a demand for change. That appetite for change is growing in areas where power is becoming more of an interactive resource, such as where customers have tools to better manage what they use and pay.

Another novel idea: a campaign to educate regulators about market and technology changes, and the benefits of closer cooperation.

Building real partnerships
Even if cities and their electronic companies can agree on shared goals, participants said it’s important that both realize that they still may have different needs in reaching them. Cities can be driven by election cycles and political change, which may not line up with the approach used by career employees at a utility.

Effective partnerships need to acknowledge that, and that means discussing who takes the credit, the risk and perhaps the blame for any shared initiative. Failing to have that conversation can result in more obstacles later.

Both also need to acknowledge each other’s silos — and make a commitment to work to tear them down.

Delivering real value
Participants agreed that city/utility partnerships could make meaningful differences in a variety of ways, and divided into groups to explore that value in more detail.

One obvious area is the more efficient use of resources, which could deliver everything from environmental/sustainability value to cost savings. Reducing the digital divide was another top area, as was reducing commute times. There was some overlap, but participants suggested that those and other benefits would also improve the quality of life in a community, which could trigger economic growth.