There’s a lot to like behind the ideas associated with smart cities. But there’s also a lot of questions to be answered about how we wire and power the systems that will make the massively interconnected future possible.

How do you make the right decisions to get from here to there?

The answer lies in an increasingly common commodity: data.

System Needs Are Diversifying

User behavior, both residential and commercial, will have increasing influence on how utilities and infrastructure planners make decisions. This evolution is powered by massive data collection, extrapolation and analytics.

Electric distribution networks, which are usually built of multiple generations and decades of legacy systems, are being asked to accommodate more diverse assets than ever. Utilities must plan for intermittent renewables (like rooftop solar photovoltaics), electric vehicle recharging stations, even corporate or campuswide microgrids. The infrastructure to compensate for these applications and expectations requires technology, flexibility and resiliency that is greater than some legacy systems can support.

Modernizing the grid doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Planning, study and targeted improvements are keys to a progressive transformation in distribution networks.

Looking Beyond Simple Fixes

Traditional distribution planning tends to be reactionary. A problem occurs, and a simple fix is typically put in place to restore acceptable performance.

Powering smart cities with a truly modernized grid requires a more holistic approach. This involves reviewing the big-picture data surrounding the problem area and its surrounding assets and system. Giving due consideration to performance and efficiency statistics within a somewhat broader scope helps you make smarter investment decisions.

This approach to grid modernization has the potential to catch additional problems, such as similarly aged and deteriorating circuits, before they fail. By upgrading portions of the distribution system in a more systematic way, limited funding can be deployed as efficiently as possible while mitigating numerous threats to service reliability.

Holistic Reviews, Efficient Improvements

Data is all around us in the modern world, to the point that it can be overwhelming. Drawing useful information out of coordinated data sets is a little bit art, a little bit science.

Deploying the latest mobile technology and geotagged data, relevant information concerning physical condition and system performance needs to be compiled into a geospatial database. Once it’s there, power flow simulations and other tests can reveal trends in the data and assess risks based on system modeling.

The growing demand for resilient, reliable power wherever you happen to be is driving utilities to re-evaluate their approach to infrastructure and the planning process. Using the holistic, data-driven grid modernization approach — instead of a constant parade of Band-Aids — is one way smart cities are revising their processes for a better tomorrow.

Innovation is not a single stage. Cities and utilities that acknowledge this and plan more holistically for the future will be ahead of their peers.


For a more in-depth look at grid modernization studies, check out how a recent engineering study applied these techniques.

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Meghan Calabro, PE, is an electrical engineer and Distribution Modernization Director for Burns & McDonnell. She has planned, designed and overseen installation of distribution infrastructure and back-end systems, ranging from field area networks used for distribution automation to Enterprise Meter Data Management systems. Her understanding of the infrastructure requirements as well as the end applications guides her holistic approach to grid modernization. Meghan also participates in a number of working groups within the transmission and distribution industry, focusing on distribution grid management and incorporating emerging standards.