State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Intelligent Infrastructure

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As part of the Obama administrations’ new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $80 billion dollars have been dedicated to investment in infrastructure. Rather than regurgitating traditional infrastructure that is based on an outdated conception of human-environment interactions, this influx of capital for infrastructure has the potential to be leveraged for innovation instead. Building Infrastructure that is responsive and flexible to cope with emerging challenges such as global warming and urbanization is vital.

The Recovery Act appears to recognize this, dedicating $11 billion dollars for “smart-grid” technology for electricity generation. What is a smart grid? To put it simply, it is a network in which different users/producers can communicate with each other to manage supply and demand. It uses information technology and the telemetry to achieve higher levels of efficiency through several ways. For example, variable pricing mechanisms can be established to alter consumptive patterns. During peak demand, consumers can choose to pay a higher price for reliable supply of electricity or they can save money by changing their usage patterns to coincide with low-demand hours when rates are reduced. Smart meters, smart appliances and communication networks that provide an interface consumers can interact with all create a more efficiently managed distribution system.

While much of the attention has been focused on smart-grid applications in the energy sector, there is a growing interest on using information and communication technologies to manage water supply. Just recently, at the House Science and Technology Committee meeting held on March 4th, the creation of a national smart water-grid was discussed. Executive director of the Water Innovation Alliance stated that between 30-50% of water losses could be avoided using an information technology-based grid system. Moreover, recognizing the potential market for smart-grid technology applications for water management, IBM recently announced a new set of services and technologies for monitoring and managing water resources.

So, what exactly is a smart water grid and what does it entail? Applications range from introducing smart meters to more complex applications such as creating a network of sensors that monitor stream flows, water quality and leakages. Smart water meters would constantly monitor water use and be wirelessly connected to a network. Introducing such meters would have a variety of benefits including demand management, detection of leaks, locating water breaks and monitoring compliance with water restrictions, just to name a few.

While smart infrastructure may present a promising approach for developed countries; it may be argued that the smart water-grid is not viable in the developing country context. Although the case for low-cost and low-tech solutions for developing countries is a compelling one, technology is playing an increasingly important role in sustainable development initiatives across the developing world. Perhaps some aspects of smart-grids can be tailored as applicable solutions in countries with limited resources.

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Dan Stellar
15 years ago

A smart grid for water seems like a great idea. It would be interesting to see some more detailed estimates as to the what types of savings could result from a smart grid, and how these compare to water savings as a result of other types of infrastructure improvements. While the potential of information technology is huge, so much of the water infrastructure in the United States is in such a decrepit state, that I wonder if simple “brick and mortar” projects should be the first order of business?