Smart Homes, Smart Cities: Smart Energy

Population growth, urbanisation and economic transformation place new demands on cities. With more people, comes more strain on global infrastructure and the environment. Energy systems are transforming around the world as the capital costs of zero emissions technologies continue to fall, as systems evolve to meet international commitments, and as urban and suburban consumers actively choose sustainable power supplies.

From smart refrigerators to smart lightbulbs, many aspects of homes and cities are incorporating these smart, connected technologies. Cities across the globe and here in Australia are becoming smarter which begs the question, what are some smart energy tactics we can employ in our homes and our cities to optimise energy consumption?

Smart Energy in your Home

When talking about smart homes, you first have to know about the Internet of Things (IoT). In the broadest sense, the term IoT encompasses the idea that every man-made physical thing in the world could be connected to the internet. Increasingly, the term describes and even defines objects and devices that “speak” to each other. From automated robotic vacuum cleaners to light bulbs, consumer and industrial devices are increasingly offered with chips and sensors inserted in them to collect and communicate data.  They can be turned on remotely or actuated automatically. They can be switched off remotely by the homeowner, or a “smart” computer can turn off the lights if a home occupant forgets.

 So, why would homeowners want to “smart up” energy management? The cost of heating or cooling a home can be one of the most expensive monthly bills, particularly in regions with more extreme temperatures. For years programmable thermostats that have scheduled and controlled the temperatures in homes, but like an old VCR, the programming was not always easy for consumers. Enter smart thermostats. This technology enables consumers to remotely monitor and control the temperature of their heating and cooling systems through a smartphone or mobile app. The advantage of using a smart thermostat with an interface app, as opposed to an old-fashioned thermostat, is that users can override the scheduled programming to raise and lower the temperature remotely, and increasingly ambient sensors in homes are getting smart enough to know independently when people are home, when they leave for the day to go to work and school, and perhaps even half an hour before they’re coming home in the new electric vehicle. High-end smart thermostats can automatically provide data analytics on energy usage, along with a return-on-investment report to demonstrate just how much money the household saved every month, making these technologies not just incredibly useful, but also self-justifying.

Smart lighting, or connect lighting technologies, has some amazing features that help decrease energy consumption on a personal level. Today, these technologies have the ability to turn on the lights for security purposes from a handheld device, text message alerts if the lights are left on, or even sensors that integrate with the lighting system in order to turn lights on or off depending on the presence of people in the room.  Each of these features of smart lighting systems can significantly increase in energy savings – even if that is not their sole purpose.

Smart Energy in Cities 

Many suburban Australian households own their own solar panels, and home batteries are increasingly popular.  For various reasons, many consumers have experienced bringing smart technologies into their homes. With the rise of home solar power systems and electric vehicles, hardware and software technologies might theoretically allow a degree of grid management and optimisation of power production and distribution in community districts.  Even without at home power generation, smart meters can provide homeowners insights into power usage patterns and may allow homes to synchronise energy demand according to periods when high wind energy or high solar energy from remote, utility-scale generation makes prices favourable. A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) notes that cities account for 65% of global energy use and 70% of manmade carbon emissions. This means that optimising energy consumption is a fundamental objective of a smart city.

Currently, there are thousands of smart city projects around the world. For example, mobile apps were developed through Smart Nation Singapore that allowed homeowners in the city-state to monitor their electrical usage and will suggest ways to save energy. In Japan just west of Tokyo, the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town connects 1,000 homes on a solar-powered smart grid, giving the neighbourhood the ability to run off-grid for up to three days. The town reports 70% less carbon emitted and a 30% return of energy back to the grid.

With more consumers able to monitor their energy usage actively and to report data to utilities, there are possibilities for electricity generators to reduce their fuel costs, ultimately leading to lower pollution and better overall system efficiency. Another key component is the use of smart energy sensor systems for predictive analytics. These data can be used to detect and predict energy needs, providing valuable insights during times of peak demand, perhaps even intervening and shutting down unnecessary excessive demand that is discretionary at times of critical power overload.

Smart grids are part of the development of a smart city, and smart streetlights are an easy entry point for many cities, since remotely controlled LED lights save money and pay for themselves within a few years. Not only are LED streetlights more energy efficient, but smart LED lights also allow for connected systems which make the grid more efficient.

What’s being done in Australia?

After a successful centralised battery installation, the State of South Australia and Tesla announced early 2018 plans to power 50,000 homes with distributed batteries and rooftop solar panels. The resulting “virtual power plant” aims to stabilise SA blackouts, but critics say the solution is expensive and that more than a third of the cost to a power consumer is in the distribution network. Most faults also originate in the distribution network.

Researchers from ANU, USyd, UTas, TasNetworks and Reposit Power have embarked on a three year experiment at Bruny Island. Over 30 homes have been upgraded with “smart batteries” charged from rooftop solar panels with controller units placed between the houses and power lines. The owners are paid when their batteries supply electricity to the Bruny Island system, which is occasionally overloaded during peak demand. Homeowners’ costs are lowered when drawing household power from their own batteries when self-supply is most cost-effective.


The next generation of smart cities will benefit from innovation that integrates renewable energy and energy efficient building technologies. With the falling costs of sensors, controllers and gateways, the IoT will gain further traction in the smart buildings market, especially among owners of small and medium-sized buildings. Already more home builders and real estate developers are adding smart home and smart building features to their new residential and commercial developments.  It’s a bit of flashy technology, but the dollars and cents are adding up to serious savings, and in a carbon-constrained future, it’s clearly a trend with a continued upward trajectory.



This story is featured in the 10 May April 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.