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Designed to promote both sustainability and livability, smart neighborhoods (or smart communities) are considered by many municipal leaders to be the wave of the future. Made possible by solar technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and human ingenuity, these connected communities no longer sound like futurist pipe dreams. As consumer demand for sustainability grows, we see purpose-built smart neighborhood developments in a variety of geographical areas, from suburbs to cities to remote desert landscapes. How do they work? Many smart neighborhoods have the benefit of their own local microgrid. While still connected to the main utility grid, microgrids can work independently as a neighborhood power source to provide cleaner, cheaper energy as well as backup during power outages. Many homes have solar roofs and batteries for solar energy storage, and some include electric car charging ports as well. The smart neighborhood concept is still evolving as the number of communities using smart technologies continues to grow. Back in 2018, the states of Alabama and Georgia (not California!) were the first to implement these neighborhood design principles. Since then, forward-thinking business and government leaders across the U.S. have initiated plans for similar areas from small- to large-scale. Other cities working to create smart neighborhoods include Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC.
A Smart Neighborhood Starts with a Smart Home
The smart home is really the core of the smart neighborhood. High-performance smart home technology allows owners to control functions like temperature, lighting and security with a smartphone or remote. Designed to optimize both energy efficiency and personal convenience, these close-knit areas also create a sense of community. If you look at the components and workings of a smart home and then zoom this out to a larger scale, you'll get the gist of it.
Components of a Smart Home
- Voice controlled, automated home systems - An advanced home network wirelessly integrates all the components of each smart home system. Remote access and voice control provide added convenience and security.
- Solar roof panels - Harnessing power from the sun, solar roofs are a staple in most smart homes and standard in solar neighborhoods.
- Batteries to store excess solar energy - home battery storage systems allow you to store your solar power and then use it on cloudy days - or during peak times to avoid paying peak rates. Whole-house battery backup systems give you peace of mind, knowing you'll be covered in a power outage.
- LED lighting throughout the home - These can also be set to automated schedules, allowing smart home owners to further reduce electricity use and save on electric bills. Energy efficiency on this scale really adds up.
- Energy-efficient washers, dryers, dishwashers and other appliances - These are standard in purpose-built smart neighborhoods.
- Community specific microgrids - When clustered together in smart communities, many smart homes are connected to a microgrid. This provides clean, efficient energy and backup power during outages.
Benefits of Smart Communities
Smart communities bring all the benefits of smart homes to a wider and more diverse group of citizens. Homeowners and the community as a whole reap benefits ranging from cost-effective neighborhood power sources to more efficient municipal services. Whether called a smart neighborhood, solar neighborhood or smart community, the smart neighborhood concept remains the same. All share some common features and benefits:
- Energy efficiency- Community members rely on a local microgrid for power, using the main utility grid only if necessary. This cuts consumer electric bills considerably.
- Enhanced technology - Residents in smart communities benefit from improved neighborhood features like high-speed internet, microgrids, and smart roads.
- Improved operations - Smart neighborhoods work with cities to build central "dashboards" that can control operations such as managing traffic flow, emergency services, and waste pickup more efficiently.
US Cities Working to Create Smart Neighborhoods of the Future
Georgia Tech's Innovative Smart Communities
Spearheaded by Georgia Tech, the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge (Georgia Smart) is an award-winning initiative that supports smart local development within the state "to improve lives, livelihoods, safety and equity." Focusing on the most critical challenges facing communities, Georgia Smart empowers local governments to develop smart solutions that help improve the quality of life and foster inclusive innovation. Neighborhoods or communities of any size in Georgia are invited to apply for technical and financial assistance. Selected communities receive grant funding, a Georgia Tech researcher dedicated to the project, and access to an international network of experts for advice on piloting a smart community. Past award winners include Smart Neighborhoods MBC, a Smart Kiosk system in underserved and at-risk areas of Macon-Bibb County, Georgia.
Mississippi Power and Tesla's Smart Neighborhood Pilot Project
Mississippi Power is teaming up with Tesla to build the world's first smart neighborhood to exclusively use the Tesla Solar Roof. With up to 150 connected homes, the solar neighborhood development will feature smart home automation and energy-efficient appliances. In addition to the Tesla home roof, each smart home will also come with Tesla Powerwall batteries, as part of a solar plus storage solution. Used as a research and development pilot project, the solar roofs will be studied to see how they perform over time in the southern Mississippi climate. The utility also hopes to learn about the impact of solar roofs and other smart technology on the grid and reliability, and on consumer energy patterns and costs. The Mississippi solar neighborhood is just one example of the growing trend among cities and smaller communities looking to solar roofs for energy-saving solutions.
Bill Gates' Smart Community in the Desert Outside of Phoenix
You could fit 80 smart communities into this single"smart city" envisioned by Bill Gates around emerging technologies. Although still in the design phase, plans for his smart city in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona are definitely in the works. The scale of this development is vast, with plans to build 80,000 smart homes, schools, office spaces, industrial areas and shops. High-speed internet networks, autonomous vehicles, and automated logistics centers are just some of the smart technology features. More than just an example of smart urban or neighborhood design, the Gates vision serves as "a template for the development of a sustainable city capitalizing on cutting-edge infrastructure."
Alabama Power's Award-Winning Smart Communities
Scoring high marks for its modern technology and energy efficiency, Alabama Power's Smart Neighborhood was named the winner of Power Magazine's 2020 Smart Grid award. The innovative neighborhood design features 62 high-performance homes with connected appliances and energy-efficient systems, plus solar panels, battery storage and a natural gas-fired backup generator. With a microgrid serving as the neighborhood power source, the project also serves as a research initiative to study how communities of the future " in Alabama and beyond" will work and thrive. The newest project in the Smart Neighborhood initiative is a partnership with Birmingham's housing authority and local builders to incorporate energy efficiency and home automation upgrades upfront - during the construction phase - The goal is to make energy more affordable for Alabama families and seniors.
Are Energy-Efficient Neighborhoods the Future?
Are smart neighborhoods the wave of the future? While many neighborhood design trends of the past contributed to suburban sprawl and energy waste, the neighborhood of the future could forge positive improvements, building connection, equity and community while cutting our collective carbon footprint. Successful smart communities in states like Georgia are already proving the value of combining smart technology with solar to maximize energy efficiency. Which states will follow its lead? It will take strong municipal leadership to drive the design and implementation of smart communities at a significant scale and to keep them affordable. Government officials and city and community leaders need to push for progressive policy and flexible regulations to make smart neighborhoods cost-effective. Builders and developers need to work with electric utility providers as well as solar and smart technology manufacturers to meet the growing consumer demand for clean energy. As more prospective homeowners factor sustainability into their decision-making, the more attractive the smart neighborhood design model becomes. While waiting for the smart development of your dreams, you can reduce your own energy waste here and now. With the smart home at the heart of every smart neighborhood, your own personal surroundings are a good place to start. Learn more about Lumin's smart energy management system and how you can automate your power usage to save on electric bills, cut waste and streamline your everyday life.