Residents of nearly 1,000 volunteer households in Dubuque, Iowa, are reviewing their electricity consumption and use patterns with near real-time data provided through a cloud infrastructure built by the IBM Services Innovation Lab.

It’s a pilot program that’s part of the city’s Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Initiative. The electricity pilot began in June and will continue through early 2012.

Dubuque is the first American city to become part of IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative, a plan by the tech giant to use its computing power and expertise to change the way local water, energy and transportation systems operate.

“We are interested in proving this technology, in establishing its value so we can offer it to many cities,” said Mahmoud Naghshineh, vice president of services research at IBM Watson Research and director of the IBM Services Innovation Lab, part of IBM Research.

The company is particularly interested in building “cloud portals” to review essential resource services in cities with a population of 200,000 or fewer. Dubuque, with 60,000 residents and a long-standing commitment to build a sustainable community, was a clear choice, he said.

“At first glance the cloud portal looks pretty simple, but as you dive into it, you can get a lot of value in terms of what the average citizen can use,” said Chris Kohlmann, information services manager for Dubuque.

Her household is also one of the volunteers for the Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Electricity Pilot Study and was a volunteer for an earlier Smarter Water Pilot Study.

“I can see electric use trends where I am now, compared to where it was a year ago; I can see energy use last week compared to this week. If I want to reduce my electric consumption by, say, 5 percent, this makes a huge statement to help me do something about it,” Kohlmann added.

How it Works

When residents log in to their Web-based, individualized portal, they find immediate information about their electricity use patterns and how they compare to similar households in their neighborhood, and how they can set goals for reducing consumption. The analytics are updated every 15 minutes. Data travels from wireless meters to the power company, and then to an IBM data center — where it’s transmitted to the consumer’s personalized portal.

The Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Electricity Pilot is the second of five ambitious pilot programs that intend to link resident volunteers in Dubuque to aggregated data from the community in near-real time. Each consumer can compare his or her current data with past use levels, discover trends and compare consumption with similar households.

Citizens can find out when during the day they use the most electricity, and accordingly adjust when they use appliances and consider switching them off at peak times. For example, data from Kohlmann’s portal indicated that 20 to 30 percent of her home’s electric use was from “phantom” sources, devices that continue to draw power when not in use — the DVD player whose red light never goes off, a coffee maker that always keeps water hot in its reservoir, a cell phone charger, and on and on.

“If I can switch these things off and use them only when necessary, I can realize a significant difference in my power bill,” Kohlmann said.

Long-Term Partnership

The electricity pilot in Dubuque is the result of a commitment that began in 2006 when Mayor Roy Buol and the City Council made the Sustainable Dubuque Initiative a top priority. It has been renewed by the council each year since then.

“The initiative is designed by citizen involvement to provide the tools and information needed to measure and adjust energy use,” said Buol. “The technology is here, and it’s just a matter of getting the analytics to people so they can make the decisions and change usage patterns.”

Buol said the programs, if someday brought to scale throughout Dubuque, would provide sustainable usage patterns for natural resources and preserve them for coming generations. “Once we bring this to scale, every citizen and business is going to have an advantage over other cities. I don’t see where there is a downside,” he added.

In 2009 the city developed a relationship with IBM when the corporation opened a 1,300-job technology services delivery center in Dubuque. The two entities recognized common goals and Sustainable Dubuque grew into Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, a public-private study and partnership that will provide volunteer residents the necessary analytics to monitor consumption and use of household water, electricity, natural gas, travel, and health and wellness.

“I find that people really believe in sustainability. This was a citizen-led and citizen-driven project from the beginning,” Buol said. “IBM was looking for a city small enough to manage the data and use the analytics to help people achieve their Smarter Planet concept.”

He said funding for both the Smarter Water and the Smarter Electricity pilots come from local, state and federal sources.

Multiplier Effect

The Smarter Water project resulted in a 6.6 percent reduction in water use among participants and an eightfold increase in identifying water leaks. Buol said the water project will be brought to scale in October when the original pilot of 350 households is expanded to 4,000 Dubuque homes and businesses. The electricity pilot could yield even better savings, perhaps an 8 to 10 percent reduction in consumption, he said.

David Lyons, the city’s project manager for Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, has steered the program while building more citizen engagement in the series of pilot projects. He said that after the water pilot’s success more than 1,200 homes and businesses wanted to volunteer for the electricity pilot.

Dubuque city managers agree that information from each pilot — water and electricity — could have a multiplier effect. “I call them ‘a-ha’ moments,” said Kohlmann. “Let’s say I’m very proud that I have the same washing machine I had in 1988. … That’s probably not the best for water use. Then I move to the next step and look at my dryer bought at the same time. I can see that it’s using lots of power. You start to create payback calculators for yourself.”

The Smarter Electricity pilot is a partnership between the city, IBM, Alliant Energy and the Iowa Office of Energy Independence:

  • City managers and citizens bring Dubuque’s commitment to build a sustainable community.
  • IBM provides the Smarter Planet program and technical expertise.
  • Alliant Energy has installed approximately 1,000 new Advanced Metering Infrastructure meters and provides anonymous customer electricity data to the city and IBM for analysis.
  • Iowa’s Office of Energy Independence provided a $1.4 million grant to fund the program.

They divide the pilot data into silos of information and use data from one to support consumption decisions in another.

A Smarter Natural Gas pilot begins this fall. It’s a partnership between the city, IBM and Black Hills Energy. Dubuque volunteers at 250 homes will receive Advance Meter Reporting technology for natural gas. They will have near real-time information how much they use and city managers say they will see the return on investment if they adopt energy-efficient technologies and appliances in their homes.

Project manager Lyons said the Smarter Travel and the Smarter Health and Wellness pilots are in the planning stages.

“Information from the first studies is now rich enough so it can be quickly applied to other areas,” said Naghshineh of IBM. “We are very interested in applying this cloud data to all areas and we will work with Dubuque as long as there is an interest.”

Terry Grillo  |  Contributing Writer

Terry Grillo is a writer based in Northern California.