SCHENECTADY — Schenectady is in the process of working with National Grid to determine which new technology will be installed on utility poles as part of its Smart City initiative.
“We’re working as partners to look at the options for deployment,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy.
Utility poles, he said, are some of the most valuable real estate available in a city.
“If you’re looking to replace street lights, what else are you going to put on the pole?” he said.
Potential options being weighed by the city and National Grid include acoustic and optical sensors, wi-fi equipment, and technology for 5G, the next generation of wireless technology.
McCarthy, who has touted the Smart City concept as a keystone of his administration, said the program is an opportunity to reform how the government delivers services through a “matrix of options,” providing “wide-ranging impact and value for every member of the community.”
That could include expanding access to high-speed internet in low-income neighborhoods, dimming or increasing street lights during car crash investigations or deploying data-driven applications that could be linked to the city’s pavement management plan, allowing them to monitor potholes and deteriorating street surfaces.
Officials aim to arrive at a decision “soon,” said McCarthy, who did not provide an exact timeline.
The tech will be installed as National Grid swaps out street lights with LED lights in up to 4,500 units located throughout the city.
National Grid estimates it will invest approximately $7.6 million over the three-year implementation of the project.
The city has set aside approximately $5 million in its capital budgets over the past three years for the work, with $2 million included in the budget for 2019.
The city has spent $1.5 million for the Smart Cities initiative to date, said McCarthy on Thursday.
The mayor has also estimated the project could save the city between $370,000 and $380,000 annually on electric costs.
McCarthy participated in a panel discussion organized by the New York State Conference of Mayors’ first-ever Smart Cities Day on Thursday, an event bringing together experts and local officials from across the state to discuss the movement by localities to adopt new technology.
Tech advancements have already changed how the Schenectady Police Department manages dashboard cameras in patrol cars, McCarthy said.
To download video, the department was previously required to pull cars out of service, retrieve the material and swap out the storage space.
But now officers can drive through wi-fi checkpoints at stoplights. While waiting for the light to change, data is automatically downloaded into a secure storage medium and made available for review and indexing.
“It just shows a dramatic improvement in efficiency,” McCarthy said after the event.
The plan is to deploy all of the technology included in the initiative by June 2021.
McCarthy said the city is negotiating with the New York Power Authority for “potential applications” and intends to work with state government during the deployment process.
“Our deployment is more complex and integrated than in some of the other communities,” McCarthy said. “I’m looking to have state participation when it’s available.”
John DeAugustine, president and publisher of The Daily Gazette, is a member of the city’s Smart City Advisory Commission.
Attendees also heard from other officials implementing Smart Cities initiatives in their cities, including Rochester and Saratoga Springs.
Like Schenectady, Saratoga Springs is budgeting funds for Smart City projects, said Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, and formed a commission after being inspired by Chattanooga, Tennessee's emergence as a tech hub.
But the city is taking a cautious approach in rolling out bold new initiatives.
“There is great technology out there,” Madigan said. “How can we spend the appropriate time evaluating it, making sure it makes sense and then implementing it?”
Involvement and communication between key community stakeholders — from schools, hospitals to the private sector — is essential, she said.
One area of particular interest in leveraging the technology is in the arts, said Madigan, citing interest from a widening group of commission participants.
Efforts by Saratoga Springs to be “smarter” in how it delivers services are ongoing, said Madigan, citing the installation of solar panels at its landfill that have driven down energy costs, as well as efforts to repair City Hall following a lightning strike last August that left the building heavily damaged.
Saratoga, too, plans on converting its streetlights to LED, and is also studying which equipment to install on poles as part of broader connectivity efforts.
Madigan emphasized the need to strike a balance between rolling out initiatives while also ensuring they will alleviate traditional city issues, whether it’s parking, plowing or wastewater issues at Saratoga Race Course.
“It’s an ongoing process of keeping the door open and having a dialogue with all of the partners," she said
Katherine May, chief performance officer for the city of Rochester, said while she’s overall supportive of the Smart City concept, she urges localities to apply the brakes when weighing deep investments and to ensure the proper groundwork and basic infrastructure is in place so initiatives are deployed effectively.
That includes ensuring the proper human resources are available to analyze data generated from new technologies.
“We have to have that full chain figured out, and that’s where we are in Rochester,” May said.
McCarthy acknowledged challenges remain as cities begin to embrace new technology, including how to sort through the sheer amount of data generated by new initiatives.
But he encouraged attendees to weigh those costs against remaining static.
“You’re going to spend the money either maintaining flawed systems or you’re going to spend the money because you have a built-in operational inefficiency,” McCarthy said. “Or you can chip away at it and do it in a manner that transitions from the old legacy environments to the emerging technologies. It’s not an easy choice because there’s not a clear path that has been done before — that’s why people are here today trying to map that out.”