Smart Cities & Buildings

Taking control of the energy transition… 5 ways our cities can tame the energy beast!

9 Mar 2020  by  John Armstrong

The energy transition presents cities with unprecedented challenges in planning for the future. Electric Vehicles place an exponential demand on electricity infrastructure, gas is being potentially phased out and we are needing increasingly stringent controls on local emissions particularly in urban centres. Simultaneously governments are introducing a baffling array of regulations and reporting requirements along with an equivalent and similarly confusing selection of subsidies.

My recent blog on the uncertainly of the next decade highlighted some of the challenges we have to come so here is a summary of what cities can do today to prepare themselves now!

1)    Where are we today?

Cities of any size need to draw a line in the sand and assess where they are today. Assess what is the cities current consumption, what infrastructure assets already exist, how is energy already used?

Taking this to the next level then gets interesting… what is the capacity of the existing systems, how many parking spaces are there for future electric vehicles, how do traffic flows look now, how long are people spending in the central business district? Importantly capacity maps for all the main utilities are essential – identifying bottle necks now can reap huge benefits later on.

This is where data comes in! Amazing data sets exist of city energy consumption, people movements, traffic flows, satellite heat maps, underground infrastructure. Bringing these together can be bewildering but will help construct a ‘digital twin’ over time – enabling exponentially better planning.

2)    Consider the city’s direction of travel.

Cities around the world are declaring climate emergencies as well as seeking to address local pollution. This is a great time to take stock and establish a clear direction of travel.

Firstly electric vehicles need to form part of any plan – in the not too distant future a robust charge point network will be essential in all urban centres. A fast charge point uses 22kW so a handful of charge points in one location can quickly push local energy infrastructure to its limits. There is also a temptation to ignore residents without dedicated parking spaces… currently a lack of available infrastructure for those without there own drive or dedicated space effectively locking many citizens out of joining the EV movement.

Cities typically have huge asset bases themselves.. with hundreds of energy munching buildings. A clear strategy is needed for building fabric, energy provision and use which takes a leadership position. Realistically natural gas is going to be around for a while… however the city may want to decarbonise quicker, have ageing assets that are due a replacement or you may need a little more resilience. In which case you may need to make some decisions sooner rather than later.

Now is the time to be thinking about upping electricity distribution capacity… ready for rapid expansion both for electric vehicle charging and heat pumps across urban centres! This change is happening as we speak and demand will likely rapidly outstrip supply!

3)    Look to your neighbours

The energy transition is all about collaboration. Using the data sets discussed above opportunities to share energy can easily be identified. Take a look around you for collaboration opportunities – do neighbours have excess photovoltaic panels or spare heat (such as data centres which eject huge amount of heat off the roof!!)…alternatively do neighbouring businesses & government buildings need to charge electrical vehicles overnight (for example delivery vans) whereas commuters need to charge them in the day?

The future energy world is all about collaboration – network pinch points particularly electrical are going to drive us together into local problem solving. City representatives can play a huge part in facilitating and leading that collaboration.

4)    Use Energy Scenarios

Consider the cities strategy… what are your plans for the next 10,25,50 years? Even 10 years feels an awfully long way away so scenarios can help. Cities are in a unique position that they can play the long game… unlike businesses with shareholders to satisfy and a need to chase return on investment cities work to different objectives. 

Energy trends of electrification of heat, electric vehicles and digitalisation are clear – there is a lot of talk about Hydrogen but realistically this is beyond the planning horizon for most of us. That said for cities now may be the time to make systems at least ‘Hydrogen ready’ in some way?

5)    Take small steps now in the direction you want to go.

The thousand mile journey really does start with a single step. There are some no regrets decisions… Solar PV will generate carbon free electricity for 25 years, energy efficiency always makes long term sense and electric vehicles are going to grow. Locally interventions to lower NOx and particulates are simply the right thing to do.

For complex interdependent infrastructure the array of challenges can seem bewildering. However some cities have made some clear steps – enforcing ultra-low emissions zones, supporting heat network infrastructure, replacing diesel busses with electric. I’ve been particularly impressed with some of bold moves made to address infrastructure challenges in cities like London, Copenhagen and Bath.

Finally cities need to look for support and don’t wait for a clear plan… as I said at the beginning there are a bewildering array of subsidies out there.. globally cities are doing some incredible things… the C40 cities are a fantastic example!

About John Armstrong

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry. He began his career constructing oil refineries before moving to work across fossil and renewable electricity generation. John has lead the growth of decentralised energy and district heating in the UK and is a seasoned energy infrastructure executive. John is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Energy Institute and has an MBA n Global Energy from Warwick Business School.

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