City turns to data to meet climate ambitions

Copenhagen could save energy and reduce CO2 emissions by using data that can empower residents and drive innovation

How much does it cost to open the window while the radiator’s on? Is the business down the street spending less money on lighting than its neighbours? Can families save CO2 if they run their washing machines at night?

Right now it’s hard to know exactly how the decisions we make affect both our energy bills and the climate. But if we did, would it encourage us to use less electricity and reduce our carbon footprint? Copenhagen’s mayor, Frank Jensen (Socialdemokraterne), certainly thinks so.

“It is absolutely necessary that Copenhageners change their behaviour if we are to successfully reach our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025,” Jensen said. “But I also believe that it is realistic. Copenhageners are already interested in saving energy and acting more sustainably.”

The problem is that there is currently a lack of data about how homes, businesses and the public sector use energy, which is slowing the innovation of energy-saving solutions as well as keeping residents in the dark about the impact of their behaviours.

To address this, Copenhagen turned to IBM which, through its Smarter City Challenge, had asked cities around the world to submit problems that the computing giant could help fix.

Copenhagen’s challenge was to investigate the potential of gathering energy data to help cut CO2 emissions. The city’s project was accepted, and over the past few weeks, an international five-person team has been in the city, visiting power plants, researching Denmark’s energy infrastructure, and interviewing over 200 of the city’s residents, including representatives of universities, businesses and local authorities.

They discovered that the vast majority wanted access to information about their energy usage and were willing to supply data that they had.

“Many of them recognised the imperative of the city reaching its carbon-neutral goal by 2025, but their individual pursuits weren’t all heading in the same direction,” Larry O’Connell, the director of IBM’s global technical leadership office, said. “Some were already collecting some data, but without other pieces of data, they didn’t have the full picture.”

For example, in order to know the costs and environmental impact of turning up the thermostat, a wide variety of data needs to first be collected and analysed. If data about the cost of electricity, current weather and the building’s efficiency are all plugged into a special model, a homeowner could potentially know the impact of altering the thermometer at the exact moment they wanted to change it.

The goal is to make residents think about the energy they are using and find intelligent ways of using the energy that is available. If homeowners could see the spike on their energy bill before they turn on the heat, maybe they might choose to wear a sweater instead. And a business with lighting on its building’s facade could control its lighting system using an algorithm that only turns on the lights when a certain percentage of energy in the grid was being produced by renewable sources.

This is a grand ambition, but before it can go ahead, a vast amount of data needs to be collected and channelled into a so-called ‘open data hub’. The idea is that the hub will connect data providers and consumers, as well as entrepreneurs and programmers, so they can use the data to find ways to help the city reduce its energy use.

While a data hub could easily be privately held and operated, the experts argue that the city should take on a strong role in both gathering and facilitating the information in the data hub.

“The city needs to be the catalyst to get this going,” O’Connell said. “It owns five percent of the buildings in Copenhagen and has influence over policy and transport, so it could quickly demonstrate the hub’s value. For example, by showing the return on investment from retrofitting buildings.”

Kim Gandhi, the director of mobile, workplace services and software services at IBM US, added that the city could also regulate the hub, which would, for example, ensure that the data is correctly gathered and formatted.

“Many of those we interviewed either had, or would like to have, access to data in order to drive innovation,” Gandhi said. “But a governing body is needed to set standards and demands. Those wanting data could be made to first provide data to the hub. This regulator could then facilitate how the information is shared. For example, they might be approached by companies who say they need particular pieces of information, and they could then be connected to whoever is best at providing this information.”

While the data has the potential to be incredibly valuable, the experts recommend that the data hub be run as a non-profit. Ultimately it’s up to the city how they choose to licence the information, though Jensen said it was too early to say how the data would be collected, structured and distributed.

What was most important, he argued, is that the information was widely accessible.

“I think it is important that a data hub is not only for the government and citizens, but also available for businesses so the data can be used to create new and smarter products,” the mayor said.

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