Cities looking to get smart have a new platform to look to that combines distributed energy, communications and electric vehicle (EV) charging.
The platform, unveiled by Totem Power on Nov. 15, won’t be available until summer 2017, but holds great potential in addressing emerging smart city concerns.
“This takes the fundamentals of the smart city and puts them in a form that consumers can get behind and understand,” said CEO Brian Lakamp. “It’s about bringing together the positive feeling around renewable energy and using it as momentum to drive the smart cities of tomorrow.”
Totem’s lamppost-style products stand either 18 or 30 feet tall and serve primarily as power stations, gathering juice from a cellular umbrella-type array and storing it in a battery. The platform also can be wired in to collect power from other nearby solar cells or wind turbines.
Layered on top of this is a telecommunications infrastructure including Wi-Fi and 4G capabilities. Finally, the unit can act as a charging station for electric vehicles.
As a piece of smart city infrastructure, the primary advantage here lies in the distributed nature of the system. Each Totem unit can store up or distribute power as needed, adding to the local supply when demand is heavy and serving as a reserve when power draw is lighter. Each is self-sustaining and capable of maintaining critical services, making the entire grid more resilient.
“When the next super storm hits, you have a way to keep things up and running,” Lakamp said.
Each Totem pole incorporates a 50 kilowatt-hour battery. The average residential utility customer consumes 30 kWh/day, so a single pole could, in principle, power two homes for almost a day, should the need arise.
Distributed power nodes also are more resistant to attack as compared to big consolidated nodes that may serve as potential targets. As a scalable model, the poles could be distributed across a range of settings including not just city streets, but also schools, corporate campuses and retail settings.
And layering communications onto this platform makes good civic sense, Lakamp said. “What’s the last thing you want to go down when the grid goes down? Communications," he said. "So in this view, the battery is not just a high-value asset to the grid itself, but also an extremely high-value asset to ensure that communications stays up when the grid goes down."
Totem is the latest player looking to forge a smart city platform that combines multiple critical functionalities — but it's not the only one.
Petra Systems of South Plainfield, N.J., uses repurposed existing streetlights, adding solar power and smart-lighting controls that it says can reduce municipal street-lighting costs up to 70 percent. The Romanian firm InteliLight takes much the same approach. All envision the smart platform as a hub that will ultimately serve to help control civic sensors in pursuit of better infrastructure management.
At the same time, the U.S. Energy Department has taken an interest in technologies that help bolster the energy grid. In January it announced $18 million in funding for six projects aimed at developing better mechanisms for energy generation, storage and deployment.
These efforts fall in line with the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative. Launched in 2011, it aims to deliver R&D in support of affordable solar energy. The initiative encourages private companies, universities, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and national laboratories to work together to drive down the cost of solar electricity.
The Totem solution falls in line with such efforts, and is as much a philosophical statement as it is a practical approach to city infrastructure. By treating critical elements such as power and communications as discreet entities, “we tend to build systems that are ugly and not terribly resilient,” Lakamp said. “Rather than treat these things as separate products, we need to see them as part of an integrated whole.”
The lamppost became a visible icon of this vision, a marker planted on every city block that helps to turn people’s minds toward an acceptance of the holistic urban view that underlies smart city thinking.
“When people can see energy and lighting and communications as all unified, as all part of a single continuum, that’s how we start to shape public awareness,” he said. “It’s all about the storytelling.”