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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane takes step to become a ‘Smart City’ research center

The streetlights in Spokane’s University District are set to do much more than illuminate the streets.

A local public-private-university collaboration called Urbanova is using the lamps to shed light on air pollution.

The Smart and Connected Streetlights Pilot is one of the first projects in Spokane’s urban “living laboratory,” the 770 acres of the University District.

The project is simple enough. Attach air quality sensors to each of the streetlights, collect the data and hand it off to researchers.

Von Walden, a professor at Washington State University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, said the project will give greater understanding to how pollution varies in areas within a city.

“Recent research from other cities has shown that there can be pockets of poor air quality around busy streets and intersections,” Walden said. “We’re interested in the street- and building-level flow of air through a city and how it impacts people’s health.”

In other words, the air quality data collected when, for instance, wildfires choke the air for days during August is good, but it only comes on a larger, regional level. But pollution can vary on much smaller levels, Walden said, with a bubble of bad air hovering in one spot while 50 feet away the air remains clear.

“Fundamentally, what we’re interested in is the air quality on a very, very fine scale within this urban environment,” Walden said.

The project is one of the first steps of a collaboration among WSU, Avista, Itron, McKinstry, the University District Development Association and the city of Spokane called Urbanova, an effort to test smart city technology and practices.

Spokane first among 10

In 2015, Spokane was picked to be one of the first 10 cities to participate in a yearlong program sponsored by Envision America, a nonprofit organization that came from an Obama-era White House initiative to explore how cities can deliver services more efficiently. The program also aimed to help American cities become “smarter” by accelerating the use of innovative technologies addressing energy, water, waste and air quality issues.

In Spokane’s case, the collaboration that became Urbanova started as more of an academic effort looking at how a city’s many systems interact, a “system of systems,” said Kim Zentz, director of Urbanova.

The project was already in the works when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a contest, with a $50 million prize, for cities to upgrade their transportation systems using 21st century technology. Come up with the best idea to use data-driven ideas and advanced transportation technologies “to reduce congestion, keep travelers safe, protect the environment, respond to climate change, connect underserved communities and support economic vitality,” and the money was yours.

Spokane submitted a bid, as did 76 other American municipalities, but the prize went to Columbus, Ohio.

From that loss sprang Urbanova and its air quality project. So far, 10 streetlights in and around the U-District owned by Avista, the city, Gonzaga University and WSU have been affixed with sensors from the local technology company Itron. The sensors, powered by Itron’s OpenWay Riva techonology, can connect with a network and communicate, and they cost just hundreds of dollars.

“We call it the tuna can,” Zentz said of the sensor.

A second phase of the project will have the sensors on 29 streetlights in the U-District and near Gonzaga University.

Research could improve health, traffic, urban design

For Walden, whose work is part of a main initiative of WSU supporting smart city research and is partly funded through a $1.5 million smart city research grant from the university, the goal of the project is to better understand urban air pollution and find ways to improve health.

A network of affordable sensors blanketing a region could send an alert to your smartphone, he said.

“It says the air quality’s fine now, but in 36 hours this plume is coming from the North Cascades and it’s headed your way,” he said. “Is the smoke concentrating in certain areas more than others? Imagine you have a child that has acute asthma. This has the potential to really improve people’s lives.”

The project, Walden said, could pave the way for applications that, based on current air quality and weather forecast, could give health care professionals a head’s up if dirty air is coming that will trigger more hospital visits.

It’s urban progress that could only happen now thanks to advancing technology, Walden said.

“This is where the rubber really meets the road. The sensors are getting cheap and affordable,” he said. “That is the point of the smart cities. Imagine in 15 years, sensors are so cheap they’re installed on every streetlight.”

Ali Hajbabaie, a professor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who focuses on transportation research, will combine data from the air quality sensors with traffic sensors counting vehicles, and measuring velocity and how long cars wait at traffic signals to see how those factors affect air quality.

Researchers envision putting the units on STA buses as well.

Kerry Brooks, chairman of Eastern Washington University’s Urban and Regional Planning Department, also is involved with looking at the data, analyzing how Spokane’s design impacts air quality. It’s already known that a city’s greenspace and parks ameliorate bad air, but Urbanova researchers wonder if the Spokane River will help as well. They’ll collect the data to find out.

Avista looks

to develop ‘microgrids’

Mike Diedesch, the lead smart city engineer with Avista working with Urbanova, said the project is a good way to kick off Urbanova.

“It’s really helping us define how to develop and define this concept of a living laboratory in the University District,” he said.

For Avista, the project has let them adapt streetlight technology. For instance, the energy company is looking at how much energy can be saved by dimming the lights when traffic is low.

Diedesch, whose focus is in power systems, said he is most excited about Urbanova’s shared-energy economy project that allows different energy “assets” – from solar panels and battery storage to traditional utility energy sources like hydro and coal – to be shared and used for multiple purposes. Avista won a $3.5 million grant earlier this year from the Washington state Commerce Department’s Clean Energy Fund to look into such electricity “microgrid” projects, and it plans to collaborate with local businesses and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

More specifically, Avista will experiment with energy sharing among buildings in the University District. For example, solar panels and battery storage could be installed in two buildings, which would be connected to a shared energy management system that will sense which building needs power and which one has enough to share from its solar or battery reserves.

But for now, the air quality work excites Diedesch.

“I think it’s a perfect intersection between engineering-related work and community-related work,” he said. “And I’m very passionate about the Spokane community.”

Itron already making the world ‘smart’

Sharelynn Moore, vice president of global marketing and public affairs for Itron, said her company is fully behind the “internet of things” mentality and “wants to connect a lot of different things.”

It’s easy to get the impression that the Liberty Lake-based technology company is far ahead of its Urbanova partners when it comes to smart cities. Countries and cities on every continent except Antarctica use Itron’s technology for energy and water resource management.

Moore points to the island nation of Tonga as a prime example of what Itron wants to accomplish. The South Pacific country recently installed a smart electricity network over its main island of Tongatapu using Itron technology. So far, 15,000 OpenWay Riva-equipped electricity meters have been installed on the island as part of its effort to reach a goal of having 50 percent of its energy come from “clean” sources by 2020.

“The island of Tonga has been automating their electricity meters, to see supply and demand because they want to use renewable,” Moore said. “We have a smart island that’s been digitally connected.”

Moore said the smart streetlight project in Spokane is interesting because the sensors are “closer to the cars, closer to people, rather than on top of the building” and will give more accurate, human-scale data.

With sensors distributed over a wide area and able to communicate over a network, Moore said they would provide “better information in a more timely fashion.”

But it is the potential of smart cities that was Moore’s focus. If an electricity grid is harmed by a downed tree, for example, a smart grid can immediately react and “heal the grid” by rerouting energy without a human ever making a decision, touching a button or even hearing of the incident.

“What if we could better manage water and energy in this fashion, and help make municipal governments more efficient and effective?” she said. “It’s about what problems can we solve. We want to solve real problems.”

Moore said the true impact of smart city technology will come when everything’s connected and communicating over a network.

“When we see that we have common streetlights, electricity, water, gas, other applications, that’s where we can show the power of so many things being run on a network,” she said. “That’s where you’ll see things happening, and providing real insights that will impact people.”