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    Why the 2020 “COVID emissions dip” was not enough

    The aggressive use of smart approaches is necessary to end the emissions crisis

    As COVID-19 lockdowns intensified in the spring of 2020, a “bright spot" emerged: emissions fell. Skies of a rare blue shone over cities by day. Stars were newly visible by night. Alongside the suffering, people became aware of the benefits that a real reduction in emissions could bring.

    Unfortunately, 2020's emissions cut will likely be temporary. And despite the new clarity of the sky, emissions didn't really fall that much. The year's reduction of between 4.2% and 7.5% amounted to a “tiny blip on [a] long-term graph" that's moving steadily upward.

    We still need to cut global emissions permanently—and one way to help do that is to reconceive the built environment with the goal of achieving sustainability. Internet of Things (IoT) technology is increasingly giving us the tools to do just that. The IoT is laying the foundation for an entirely new conception of how to build, operate, and maintain urban centers and the structures that comprise them. With the European Green Deal and similar climate-neutral programs in other parts of the world, the year 2021 may well be the year that smart city and smart building approaches become the rule rather than the exception.
    As the world leader in connected and LED lighting, Signify is well positioned to demonstrate how connected systems vendors can help move climate action forward. To this end, Signify has created a Green Switch program offering many LED and connected lighting capabilities that businesses and municipalities can use to drive participation in all five of the Green Deal’s flagship initiatives.

    The smart city promise

    In a nutshell, smart cities use integrated sensor-based technology, powered by data analytics, to make urban life better for people and the planet. Among other things, this means making cities cleaner, more efficient, and generally “greener."

    Take transport. In the old-model city, a metro train operating on a rigid schedule might run almost completely empty of passengers during off-hours. In doing so, it would generate essentially the same emissions that it did in moving huge crowds at rush hour.

    In the smart city, in contrast, people-counting sensors located throughout the metro system can collect masses of passenger-usage data. Interpreted by data analytics applications, this data can inform train scheduling and routing, so that trains are dispatched only in response to actual need. Trains could even be automatically diverted in real time and sent to where they're needed at the moment—to meet a sudden surge in demand, for instance. Such deployment precision would save energy.

    Up on ground level, bus, light rail, and tram lines will benefit from IoT tech in much the same way. The better service resulting from the effective use of IoT technology may also coax drivers out of their cars, helping to reduce one of the single largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

    The automobile in its proper place

    The automobile will still have a place in the new city, to be sure. But it will function as one useful transportation mode among others, rather than as the default or privileged mode.

    Smart city functions can make life easier as even when you do have to use your car. Traffic signals will no longer work according to pre-set programs. Instead, they'll respond to real-time traffic conditions, temporarily cutting stop times at certain intersections to clear congestion and then lengthening them again when possible. Better-circulating traffic means fewer emissions—not to mention happier people.

    Sensor tech will also efficiently steer drivers to likely parking spots, indicating empty spaces on on-device maps and providing directions to them. This will do much to eliminate that unloved and highly pollutant urban rite: circling the block, looking for an empty space.

    Lighting a new urban path

    Connected lighting systems are poised to play a leading role in cutting urban emissions—especially when you consider that lighting can account for up to half of a city's energy use. Street lightning is often especially energy wasteful, needlessly illuminating areas even when empty of human presence at night.

    In the new city, lighting need not be a strictly completely-on or completely-off proposition. Sensor-enabled lighting systems will bathe streets in light as needed, dimming them to the lowest levels required for basic public safety when nobody is present.

    LED and connected lighting offer one of the simplest and most often overlooked paths to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a city. LED-based connected lighting systems combine smart scene management with highly energy-efficient street lights, using up to 70 percent less energy than their conventional counterparts.

    The smart grid to the rescue

    The smart energy grid is another advantage that the IoT has to offer the city.

    The traditional energy grid has been one-directional: utilities generate energy and distribute it. In contrast, smart grids use sensors along the entire energy distribution network to establish two-way communication between utilities and energy consumers in the system. Such smart systems could cut emissions by 3.9% by 2030.

    A smart grid can operate with a responsiveness and agility that the traditional grid simply cannot. Take the smart home energy meter as an example. Not only do smart meters measure electricity use in real time, they also share that data with consumer via an app. Consumers can see exactly where they're wasting energy and can adjust their habits to better conserve it. At the same time, smart meters feed data about household energy use back to the utility, where it's analyzed to help the utility operate more efficiently. Utilities can also use this data to promote consumer responsibility by rewarding "green" behavior: Households that use less energy during peak hours might receive financial benefits for their role in flattering the demand curve.

    Smart grids also make it easier to integrate solar and other types of renewable energy sources. Such sources can be integrated even when they're private—as in the case of a homeowner installing solar panels on their roof, allowing them to contribute energy to the grid for an energy discount when home demand is low.

    A revolution in HVAC

    IoT-enabled buildings, whether commercial properties or private homes, are also a crucial element in the low-emissions urban future.

    In commercial buildings, such as office complexes, smart tech will minutely record energy consumption throughout the space, letting managers identify waste factors. In what sector of the office are HVAC costs higher than they are elsewhere, and why? Sensor tech provides the real-time and historical data necessary to answer such questions and respond effectively.

    IoT systems in smart buildings will also react to local environmental changes in a way that can create unprecedented efficiencies. Traditional building management systems are capable of cranking up air conditioning as the day gets warmer, and then turning it down as the sun sets and the air cools. But in the smart building, such control will be vastly more supple. Sensor-based systems can turn down the AC as clouds obscure the sun, or turn up the warmth on a windy winter day.

    Occupancy-sensing technology, additionally, can ensure that unused or underused parts of a building don't function as energy drains. Areas with sparse or no human presence can be heated or cooled to a lesser extent than highly populated areas. Heating and cooling can instantly and automatically come up to normal levels when people do congregate there.

    LED efficiency for buildings

    LED-based smart technology can make street lighting vastly more efficient, and it can drive efficiency inside buildings, too—a fortunate thing, as 10% to 20% of the energy a building uses typically goes to lighting alone.

    In addition to matching lighting levels to room occupancy—turning lights down or off when they're not needed—a smart lighting system can automatically adjust the brightness of the LED lights that it controls depending on changing environmental conditions. For example, the system can lower electric light levels when there's plenty of natural daylight available.

    Another often overlooked advantage of connected lighting is that it helps to build the digital infrastructure that is so crucial for the adaptability, optimal operation, and efficient maintenance of the built environment. Industry experts often point to connected lighting as a "spearhead" technology for smart cities, offering one of the quickest and most dependable routes to implementing a smart city platform that can eventually integrate many systems to achieve the highest possible levels of energy efficiency.

    Stunning numbers

    The numbers associated with smart building technology are striking. One high-profile model smart building, the so-called PTK1 in Israel, is 40 percent more energy-efficient than a conventional structure.

    In both urban planning and construction, such striking numbers will have to become far more prevalent to avert the disaster scenarios predicted by the emissions crisis — broadening and making permanent the environmental improvements that provided slight hope during the pandemic. Doubling the buildings renovation rate from 1.5% to 3% per year, for example, is required to reach the European Green Deal's goals for carbon neutrality, energy efficiency, and renewables. 

    About the author

    Jonathan Weinert, IoT and Connected Lighting, Signify
    Award-winning writer Jonathan Weinert has been been researching and reporting on LED lighting, connected lighting, and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008. 

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