Smart Cities – Beyond the Buzz, a Utility Perspective

By: Sara Ganowski (c) 2021

Alectra’s Smart City Specialist, and Clean50 Emerging Leader Sara Ganowski sheds some light on what exactly makes a city “smart”

In a world of smartphones and smart homes, we’ve likely all heard of the term Smart Cities by now, which raises the question: is it just another buzzword? Not quite.

Let’s explore the how and why.

So, what is a Smart City, anyway?

While the term has been around since the 1990s, Smart Cities gained popularity in the early 2010s as it described the increasing use of technology and data to inform “smarter” development of cities. Today, we see thousands of Canadian cities adopting Smart City strategies, governance structures, competitions, and projects – from Vancouver to Halifax. And yet, nobody really agrees on a specific definition of Smart Cities.

In 2015, Smart Cities academics attempted to determine a definitive definition of the term, compiling over 23! This process suggested that Smart Cities could solve a lot of problems and improve the quality of life for residents through sustainability, economic growth, improved services, optimized resources, and integrated infrastructure. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city like this?

Despite the still-indefinite definition, the one aspect of Smart Cities that most agree on is that Smart Cities will likely achieve these improvements in quality of life through technology, data, and collaboration. 

Why Smart Cities matter – now more than ever

By 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will live, commute, and work in cities. Cities have an undeniable role to play in developing more sustainable, prosperous economies that ensure the well-being of their residents. 

As we embark on the 4th Industrial Revolution (or 5th – depending on who you ask), cities will undergo significant transformations. As cities grow, the energy demands of our digitally connected lives are growing with it – requiring more innovative technology solutions and coordinated strategies. 

Transportation and energy remain the twin pillars of these transformations. Cities will require mobility and energy solutions that are sustainable, affordable, secure, inclusive, and customer-centric. When we look at the uptick in zero-emission government mandates and developments in transit electrification, automated connected electric and shared vehicles, and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), it’s hard to deny that these solutions are standing up to the hype.

Electric-mobility and the Smart City

Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as one of the major pillars as urban centers transform into Smart Cities – primarily in terms of revolutionizing city transportation needs.

Further, the relationship between EVs and the energy grid not only challenges the sustainability of our electricity system, but also promotes and stimulates its upgrading. Undeniably, EVs can help enable the development of two-way communications by deploying Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) and Grid-to-Vehicle (G2V) initiatives – a fundamental concept of the “Smart Grid” (another buzzword article, perhaps for another time). EVs also have strong environmental benefits, as they can help minimize noise levels, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70% when compared to gas-fueled vehicles. For these reasons, and more, EVs are seen as critical assets for a sustainable energy future – and hence, for Smart Cities.

The unique role of utilities in Smart Cities

Utilities can play a key role in Smart Cities, largely due to their scale, critical infrastructure, and long-standing innovation impact on their communities.

Some of the most effective ways utilities are expanding their role in Smart Cities include actively participating in the development of city transportation electrification and emission reduction strategies, and developing partnerships with technology providers to test and deploy integrated energy solutions.

But utilities can’t do this alone. Their ability to drive positive transformational change hinges on strong collaboration with government, regulators, municipalities, innovation partners, manufacturers, service providers, and of course, forward-thinking customers.

Alectra and Smart Cities

Despite the ambiguity and challenges of Smart Cities, we at Alectra, North America’s second-largest local distribution company, are committed to bringing the concept to life.

We see our role in Smart Cities as powering homes, buildings, and transportation with smart, clean technologies to enhance the quality of life for residents and those working in urban areas. Given the critical role of energy and mobility in Smart Cities, our initial focus is to identify, test, and assess opportunities for Alectra to support our communities with the shift to electric mobility (e-mobility).

Our Smart City journey – Through an e-mobility lens 

Alectra has long played a leadership role in advancing EV programs and infrastructure to both demonstrate the maturity of this technology and the benefits EVs offer to its customers, the environment, and the grid. There is an increased demand in our communities for further development of innovation capabilities in artificial intelligence, data analytics, and other cross-industry technologies that will enable EV adoption, expedite grid modernization, and support Smart City development. Here’s a look at how we are meeting this demand: 

Our EV programs

As more consumers adopt zero-emission vehicles, Alectra’s Green Energy and Technology Centre (GRE&T Centre) is exploring how EVs can be leveraged as distributed energy resources (DERs) to provide customer and grid optimization benefits through several initiatives.


AlectraDrive is an integrated program designed to assess and provide innovative EV solutions for condos, homes, and workplaces. The AlectraDrive program includes pilots that make EV charging stations more accessible, thereby reducing battery range anxiety which, for many current and prospective EV drivers, is still a major deterrent. 

Children charging an electric vehicle at home

Our goal with AlectraDrive is to better understand EV behaviour by providing grid-responsive and customer-friendly charging solutions. Since 2017, this first-of-its-kind initiative in Canada has brought together various levels of government, municipal partners, and over a dozen cleantech innovators to demonstrate the benefits of grid-integrated EV charging while avoiding over 50 metric tonnes of GHGs and engaging 200+ participants.

The key objective of AlectraDrive @Work was to demonstrate the value of a smart EV charging system that manages the flow of electricity needed to serve workplace buildings and their EV charging stations. Similarly, in the residential sector, AlectraDrive @Home sought to better understand and ultimately influence behaviour with smart charging solutions that make it easy for consumers to embrace zero-emission vehicles. The AlectrDrive @Home pilot tests various incentive and business models for utility-managed residential EV charging, while demonstrating the value of EV load management to ensure EV adoption is both seamless to consumers and the grid.

A person charging their electric car at work

Ultimately, this program intends to validate a business model that can lead to greater EV infrastructure investment at scale due to improved economics and insight into legislation and regulations that can be used to influence policy development.

By the end of 2020, Alectra had officially deployed 29 EV charging stations across 9 Alectra offices. Alectra also deployed 18 EV charging stations at municipal sites for public and employee use. Alectra plans to continue its EV momentum in the coming years, with several more EV projects in the pipeline.

Together, these initiatives have enabled Alectra to engage its customers in the EV revolution, while evaluating the challenges, benefits, and long-range implications of EV adoption within the Smart City.

Alectra’s verdict on Smart Cities

It’s not just hype.

We believe Smart City initiatives are about collaborating with our innovation network and communities to solve tomorrow’s problems by leveraging smart, and connected data and technology, with the goal of enhancing sustainability and quality of life.

Although this goal comes with some ambiguity – as innovation usually does – we believe the Smart City concept remains a critical term in the industry that signals a technological and customer-centric approach to enabling a more climate-conscious modern society. We remain committed to innovating in this space to enable a better energy future for the communities we serve.