Schneider Electric exec: ‘Smart city’ drive to spark GCC energy revolution

Benoit Dubarle on how Dubai’s smart city project signals an energy revolution across the region

According to United Nations estimates, by the year 2050 as much as 66% of the world’s population will be in urban areas. With just under 35 years until that date is reached, cities around the globe are scrambling to find ways to effectively and efficiently deal with the rapid urbanisation of their country’s populations.

One of the crucial aspects of improving quality of life for a city’s residents is to ensure that the various services a city provides are both smart and user-friendly. With technology continuing to develop at a rapid pace, it will continue to play a role in achieving this smartness and efficiency.

As smartphones continue to grow in use, while becoming more powerful and integrated with our day-to-day lives, we’re seeing increasing number of countries subscribe to the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT).

This is especially evident in a city like Dubai which, unlike a number of cities in the region, has long been an advocate for embracing the power of technology to achieve a better quality of life. The smart city project was first conceptualised under the leadership of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, and HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and general supervisor of the Dubai smart city project.

The project itself extends across a variety of fields, with the government of Dubai planning and implementing more than 100 smart initiatives in specific areas, with government services under specific focus.

According to the KPMG report ‘Dubai – a New Paradigm for Smart Cities’, Dubai’s smart city strategy plans to transform a thousand government services into smart services. The project aims to encourage collaboration between the public and private sectors to achieve targets in six particular focus areas: Smart Life, Smart Transportation, Smart Society, Smart Economy, Smart Governance and Smart Environment. The strategy will rely on three basic principles – communication, integration and cooperation.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the initiative is of particular interest to a company like Schneider Electric. A multinational corporation that specialises in electricity distribution, automation management and energy management, the French giant sees itself as an ideal part of Dubai’s smart city ambitions.

As part of its efforts to showcase its capabilities, the company hosts an annual event at the Dubai Convention and Exhibition Centre – Power to the Cloud is the largest regional event of its kind to focus on smart cities. In its fourth year now, the latest edition of Power to the Cloud comes at a time of “rapid infrastructure transformation and economic change”, in the words of Saeed Al Tayer, managing director and CEO of Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), during his inauguration address.

“As we strive to become smart and more connected than ever before, we need to learn to leverage technologies that are eco-friendly. Today, the convergence of IT and operational technology (OT) makes it possible to increase process efficiency and optimise scare resources,” Al Tayer added.

It is this convergence of IT and OT that brought Big Project ME to meet with Benoit Dubarle, country president for Gulf Countries at Schneider Electric. Speaking on the sidelines of the event (which had more than 2,000 attendees from across various industries), Dubarle explains that Dubai is at the right time and place for a move towards a smarter future.

“As you know, the economies in the GCC are a little under stress these days due to the oil prices, which are a major source of revenue for the whole region. This gives us a good opportunity, because as a company, we’re providers of solutions that make people save. Saving energy means saving money, and in a period of economic slowdown, the public sector and the private sector are looking for solutions that will impact positively the bottom line,” he says.

“That’s what Schneider is all about – being a worldwide leader in energy management and automation. It’s about the public entities and the private industries being more efficient in terms of energy consumption, and therefore achieving significant savings, with a good return on investment.

“So that’s a balance that we see these days. While there’s a depressed economic environment in the new building sector – the construction market – at the same time, there’s good opportunities for us in existing infrastructure. These projects have to last longer – in the oil & gas industry, for example – they have to last longer as there will be less green-field and therefore they’ll need to upgrade their installations,” Dubarle asserts.

However, where he sees the biggest opportunity is in digitisation, or the IoT. This is a sector that is not slowing despite the uncertain economic times, and that isn’t just limited to the local region. Being based in Dubai, Dubarle has the opportunity to follow things pretty closely, and the city’s evolution over the last few years leaves him in no doubt that it is well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged smart city.

“The next step that Dubai is now undertaking is to place an overall platform – a backbone which will, at the end, encompass all the data that is present in the field, so that they will have the opportunity to monitor the entire city,” he outlines.

“At Schneider Electric, we’re very present in all the verticals that nurture this software, namely in utilities. We provide smart utilities and smart grids, particularly with DEWA, if we’re talking about Dubai. All of our devices that are with them – our hardware that is guiding, cutting and connecting electricity – are connected to the cloud.

“Obviously this data needs to be analysed with our software, sorted in our data centre and, at the end, will reach this citywide platform that is under implementation, together with all the data from other sources – the RTA for transportation, the data from smart buildings that are connected to the cloud, from healthcare to airports, all of the infrastructure that we represent with hardware, is connected to the cloud,” Dubarle explains.

He adds that the target for implementation of this city-wide platform is the end of this year, and by having it in place, it will allow Dubai to demonstrate that it is the best smart city in the world by allowing it to tangibly measure Key Performance Indicators.

This is evident in how DEWA has been able to become regarded as one of the most efficient utilities in the world, he says, explaining how the authority has been able to measure its efficiency by using very precise KPIs from the type of data that Schneider Electric helps collect.

“At a city level, that’s the kind of KPIs they can give for energy and also for transportation,” he explains. “They will be able to pilot life in the city and [tell citizens] that ‘you better go here or there to reach this spot’, because of the analytics they will get on the ground.”

“And for each of us, in our homes, where we live, what we’re seeing more and more in some countries (particularly in California, USA) is that than an individual in his apartment or office can monitor, from his smartphone, the way he’s consuming energy. That could be lighting, HVAC or water usage.”

With smart metering positioned correctly in rooms, individuals can not only monitor their usage, but also receive feedback from utility providers on actual consumption or consumption trends. This can lead to some unexpected benefits, Dubarle says.

“To give you an example, there are some communities in San Francisco where they challenge themselves, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. They say, ‘OK, today I’ve consumed less than you per capita.’ This kind of teasing seems to be a game, a Facebook kind of thing. But it’s really a trend that brings citizens up to the level of true consciousness of their behaviour,” he points out.

Given the prevalence of social media usage in the GCC region, this could have an interesting impact on energy usage. With energy having been subsidised for so many years, changing the mind-set of users could be a key factor in achieving sustainability and environmental goals.

“Yes, energy has been subsidised here for many years, but now I think that the governments have understood [the importance of cutting energy subsidies]. For the planet, but also to do some savings! It’s one of the consequences of the COP21 agreement in Paris. Each government in the region has committed to less carbon emissions. So actually, in most of the countries in the MENA region, the tariffs are being revised, if they’re not already. For this reason, it’s important to take into account renewable energy and to incentivise private companies to build solar farms and resell energy back into the grid.”

There are two aspects to this shift in mind-set that will affect citizens in the GCC. One is the re-evaluation of energy tariffs that Durbale has already mentioned, and the second will be of particular interest to the construction industry, he says.

“More and more standards are being enforced by the governments. The LEED standard for buildings, for example. For new buildings, the standards are very stringent. Energy-efficient architecture is to be respected.

“But also for existing buildings. Etihad ESCO, which is a branch of DEWA, has been tasked to audit and then retrofit existing buildings to make them more efficient. We’re able to deliver 30% energy savings on an existing building, so this gives you an example of how it’s changing – the tariff is changing, the standards are changing and so the mind-set is changing as well.”

This isn’t just limited to Dubai, he’s quick to point out. Other GCC countries are also taking steps to rethink their energy policies and tariffs, with most looking at a mix of renewable and traditional energy sources to power their economies.

“What Dubai is doing, we see that in other GCC countries, mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They’re pretty well advanced, particularly in Saudi Arabia, in terms of rethinking their smart grid approach. Qatar is the same. Kahramaa is pretty well advanced in resetting the software management of its grid. It’s really a tendency that we see everywhere in the region, at least in the past year. That’s due to the COP21, I think.

“Dubai is not an isolated case. It’s probably more advanced because it started earlier than the others, but every country is having the same thought now,” he concludes.


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