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2019 and beyond: Laying the foundations for a smart city infrastructure

It is predicted that by 2040, the UK’s cityscapes will have realised their potential to offer an integrated, smart, connected infrastructure to work, travel and live in (source). They will act smarter than they do now, not just because of the sophisticated technology, but because the focus is on the development of people-centric initiatives, which will enhance human experience of urban life.

A more effective and efficient city transport infrastructure sits at the heart of this transformation, not only to help alleviate the growing challenge of climate change and build a sustainable future, but to also improve the way people navigate the urban environment.

Chris Evans, deputy managing director of Rolton Group, says the UK has a golden opportunity to become the world leader in infrastructure development to support its future transport needs, but only if it has a reliable and sustainable energy resource with which to power these vital changes. Whilst we have seen a number of positive commitments from the government to support the drive of our future transport system, we have yet to see evidence of an adequate solution to support the smart city transition, one which will need to meet both the growing demand on the UK’s national grid and the challenges posed by growing congestion.

In a bid to accelerate the drive for a sustainable future, three things are clear; the onus on the integration and adoption of battery electric vehicles(BEVs) should be first on the priority list for both private and public sector; secondly, that this BEV evolution is central to how our smart city infrastructure develops and runs in the years to come; and lastly, that we are still a far cry from establishing a localised energy solution that will meet even the most basic demands of this evolving energy infrastructure.

2018’s Autumn Budget was also the latest in a long line of piecemeal policy announcements surrounding the energy landscape, which are half-hearted and often contradictory. Freezing fuel duty is at odds with curtailing support for BEV and hybrid vehicles and will leave many unsure of the government’s direction on low carbon vehicles, and the resulting considerations for facility management and infrastructure their integration will create. What we really need is a long-term, costed 20-year transition programme to transform the UK’s infrastructure and create a smart grid capable of supporting BEVs.

There were aspects of the Chancellor’s Budget that demonstrated progress in the right direction to welcoming BEV integration – including the £90M funding pledge to create future mobility zones, which will also support the integration of smart cities, building facilities and energy management. In the detail of the Budget, it seems that the government is hoping to equalise gas and electrical rates by 2022, by introducing a climate change levy. This is due to the continued greening of the grid, paving the way for a new era of energy supply and moving us away from gas over to green electricity, which has to be good news.

Creating a sustainable, smart grid solution

At the moment, the government’s approach is vehicle-led – or in other words, consumer-led – and this means we’re all reacting to market forces rather than collaborating together to achieve a national strategy, leaving a gaping pit in the drive for a sustainable future.

Our transport, energy and communications networks are becoming increasingly and inextricably linked with developments in the built environment, and a cohesive UK-wide strategy is vital. Cross-sector collaboration between government, the utilities sector and wider industry is essential to ensure the UK continues to grow and flourish in the emerging brave new sustainable world.

A move towards decentralised energy is critical to maintain an effective and fully connected smart infrastructure. Preventing energy from being generated and distributed where the power is needed – primarily in cities – will lead to ramifications far beyond our transportation system. If, for example we assume that any existing grid can adequately support thousands of BEV owners plugging in at the same time, we are being very short-sighted, and overlooking a very real risk of brownouts and energy shortages and that’s even before we start looking into the impact of Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs).

The move towards localised energy sources

Despite the immense challenges, the rising popularity of BEVs presents nations with significant opportunities. Chief among them is the move towards more localised forms of energy generation and distribution. Changes in regulation could reduce the risk of power demands exceeding availability through smart BEV charging as the government has legislated for, enabling distribution network operators (DNOs) to ensure charging is off peak. Reducing the legislative restrictions on DNOs would also allow the flexibility in investment that many grids desperately need.

Moreover, facilitating off-grid renewable power supply and storage solutions would meet BEV power requirements (at least in part), secure energy supply on a specific site and continue to help meet environmental targets. This will be aided by using BEV batteries for Vehicle-2-Grid solutions to provide grid balancing services, all of this will benefit from the Government in the UK committing £30M to developing V2G technologies. With $90Bn global investment in BEV research and development, many other countries have the opportunity to progress a new area of commercial growth and showcase their academic prowess for the technology that will be required to meet the various challenges of the future.

With signs of a growing pollution issue across the world’s key cityscapes, ensuring that the UK is prepared for the multi-faceted challenges and opportunities offered by the mainstream adoption of BEVs is critical on an international level. Bespoke localised energy adoption will be integral in making a new, blanket standard to support BEV implementation the reality. Priority must be given to strengthening energy infrastructure, which is already struggling to adjust, in order to meet the demands of tomorrow.

Whilst we can see that this transport revolution brings many challenges, it’s also worth noting that there are several commercial opportunities, which have received scant attention in comparison to the general infrastructure debate. For the highways, construction and engineering industries, EV adoption brings an opportunity to showcase progressive solutions to the growing need for vehicle charging.

In addition to a network of EV charging points, the UK’s Department for Transport has unveiled a £40M plan to develop wireless charging systems to be embedded in car parks and along major highways to power up vehicles without the need for drivers to plug in. While these kind of Scalextric-style solutions may seem far off, Sweden has already installed the world’s first e-road and a similar system is being tested in China. Infrastructure developers must consider a rapidly growing array of new and emerging technologies to meet our increasing demand for power.

At a political level, regulatory changes could reduce the risk of power demands exceeding availability through smart EV charging, enabling power distribution companies to ensure charging is off peak. Moreover, facilitating off-grid renewable power supply and storage solutions – such as waste to energy plants, PV or wind turbines – would meet EV power requirements (at least in part), secure energy supply on a specific site and go towards environmental targets. There is even the possibility of EV batteries being combined in Vehicle-2-Grid solutions to provide grid balancing services – the UK government has committed £30m to developing V2G technologies. And, with $90Bn global investment in EV R&D, many countries have the opportunity to progress a new area of commercial growth and academic prowess.

The future

There is a clear window of opportunity for progressive developers to steal a march on the competition, maximise the commercial potential of localised energy provision and carve out a market-leading brand position. No matter what the deadline is, we must take a more holistic approach – combining housing, infrastructure, energy and transport strategies, if the UK is to realise its bold ambitions and meet with the global evolution to a smart city infrastructure.

If you are interested in finding out more about key infrastructure trends today, you may wish to attend the flagship infrastructure exhibition at the NEC in April 2019 : UKIS 2019

Click here for more information on how to register or exhibit at the UK Infrastructure Show 2019.  

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