Smart Cities v. Big Utilities (or "Is Ontario all that?')

Sometimes the internet is a mess. Other days it throws up pieces of information that seem to fit together almost too perfectly.

Utilities Foot-Dragging?
For the second time this month, Ontario's work to encourage renewables and transition towards a smart grid has attracted praise from south of the border. The New York Times' Green Inc. reported in glowing terms on the success of Ontario's feed in tariff. [Offering 11 Canadian cents ($0.9 U.S.) a kilowatt-hour for small-scale hydro, wind and biomass and 42 Canadian cents ($0.34 U.S.) for solar (vs. 5 cents for nuclear, coal, gas and large hydro) has netted them more proposal than they new what to do with. They exceeded their 10-year target cap of 1,000 megawatts in the first year.]

I've also written positively about Ontario's efforts. But there are some questions that need to be asked: Like was the cap set too low? Both the CBC and Greenpeace have taken critical looks at the province's efforts and pointed out that it seems to be deliberately limiting the rollout of renewables while promoting a long term plan that still centers around expanding nuclear power. Nuclear takes a long time to build and won't be running until years after the new power is needed. Renewables on the other hand can be put in place more quickly and so can respond quickly to increases in demand.

I'm not in a position to evaluate those claims - but similar accusations are starting surface in Europe as well. Reuters reports that major energy utilities are being accused of lobbying in Brussels to slow the pace of change. They are even being fingered for being behind the recent demise of a 500 million euro fund for research into smart grids. Their aim, apparently, is easy to understand: they want to protect their market. They are after all in the business of selling electricity.

Developers Give Them a Run for Their Money
If major utilities are unwilling or unable to change, big developers don't seem so sluggish. Reuteurs quotes the deputy director of one French construction company laying out their new business plan: "We have entered an era of breakthroughs and of a technological revolution in the construction sector. Because tenants will pay 60 percent less in electricity bills, we can charge higher rents and we will sell the surplus of electricity back to (French utility) EDF."

Cities take on a new level of importance in this situation; their relative autonomy allows them to push for changes large utilities might want to resist. Local level incentives have the ability to bring more renewables on-line. Municipalities that take the bull by the horns will start becoming energy independent as buildings and municipal systems (waste, water etc) are used to generate the energy the city needs. We are not talking about smart grids here, so much as smart cities.

Obviously I have a horse in the race here, and believe in the positive impact that cities can have. But amidst all the hoopla, I think its useful to sound a note of caution as well. Despite the ability to create real incentives for renewables, few cities have actually acted on that potential. Reuters credits the EU ambitious emissions reductions targets for spurring interest in urban energy systems. Yesterday 400 EU cities pledged to go even further. I hope they do. But we've seen similar statements before (from the underperforming US Mayors Agreement for example). The potential is there, but without real effort and support it could all end with the first press conference. So push you utilites and call you councillors.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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