Are we ready for the 100% renewable energy landscape?
April 1, 2019
Illustration by Cliff van Thillo
In the past decade there is increasing amount of interest in looking at the relationship between energy systems and urban areas. The way we produce and consume energy has a direct impact on how we create our living and working spaces. The invention of machines about two centuries ago gave us access to a large amount of energy which helped expand our living spaces and economic activity. This would not be possible without the extensive use of fossil fuels to produce energy, making the question of carbon-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relevant to this discussion.
Globally, energy use is the biggest contributor to GHG emissions with about two-thirds of emissions arising from energy production. Increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions are causing temperatures to rise triggering (irreversible) climate change. Currently, the global discussion is pushing us to re-think our fossil-fuel based society and economy so that we can limit global warming to a manageable condition. Finding a solution to balance economic growth and the use of limited natural resources is a contentious debate with no easy solutions.
The global climate negotiations (COP24) held in Katowice in December last year highlights the difficulty and urgency of the problem we are facing. As the negotiations between different countries progress, one can’t help feeling torn between hopefulness and disheartenment at the future of the next generation. One feels hopeful because of the raised ambitions by so many countries to expand the use of renewable energy use so that we burn fewer fossil fuels and have a good chance at limiting global warming. But the barriers we face to make the shift to a cleaner and efficient energy system are indeed massive and disheartening. The change that we need would require a shift in economic exchanges, technological systems and societal perception. The result of the negotiations illustrates the difficulty and the long timeline that is needed to arrive at a political consensus on how we can begin to implement change.
There are no easy answers. But as urban planners and designers, it is important to start a discussion about how we can influence urban development patterns so that we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and help promote the shift to a renewably fueled energy landscape.
The way our cities are planned have a significant impact on energy use. For example, a compact urban core designed to encourage pedestrians and cyclists reduces the necessity of cars and its related energy use and emissions. Similarly, solar passive design strategies can reduce energy demand for heating and/or cooling in buildings. Movements like ‘New Urbanism’ and ‘Smart Growth’ advocate for ways in which we can shift to a less energy demanding and resource efficient future.
The increasing number of such design guidelines and benchmarking standards shows us that there is a shift in the mindset of urban planners and designers about our current development models. Designing new areas or adapting existing ones to adhere to sustainable design principles is now becoming the globally accepted norm to help promote a more energy efficient urban development. To the climate-sensitive urbanist in me, this seems like the most obvious and sensible solution to battle global warming. However, we need to be aware of local factors like social acceptance and urban decision making that play a very big role in implementing these global solutions within a local context.
Consider the example of increasing renewable energy supply in urban areas. Increasing energy supply using solar, wind, geothermal or biomass will help to diversify fuel sources and move away from carbon- based fuels which are high emitters of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, implementing windmills or solar panels on a large scale is not always a straightforward process. The visual and noise impact of windmills is a cause of concern and has resulted in protests against its installation in western European countries like Netherlands and Denmark.
In Denmark alone, there are 275 protest groups against wind turbines. Decision makers are now trying to address this issue by creating schemes for community ownership of windmills, so that economic benefits are shared within the community leading to higher social acceptance. Many urban designers are also trying to integrate elements like windmills and solar panels to provide a more aesthetically pleasing landscape.
In cities like Hong Kong and Dubai, solar energy has a very high potential to meet a big proportion of energy needs. But only about 1 % of Hong Kong and 2% of Dubai’s total energy needs are met through renewable sources. There are multiple reasons for this. While visual concerns don’t play a big role in this context, the lack of incentives for residents to be involved is a major factor contributing to the slow progress of renewables. Only about six months ago Hong Kong has initiated a FIT (feed-in-tariff) scheme for its residents. In Dubai, until today there are no incentives or regulations that would make residents take the first step. Slow decision making and lack of proper incentives hinder the widespread of use of solar energy in places where the sun shines for most of the year.
It is undeniable that community interest and acceptance play a big role in determining the success of installing new renewable energy technologies. This is not any different if we were to take an example of introducing a new concept within urban living. Let’s have a look at the implementation of TOD (transport-oriented-development) areas. This concept emerged in planning theory in the 1980’s and refers to a mixed-use community that is walking distance of a transit stop and commercial uses. It involves the integration of land use and transport planning to concentrate development around transit stops.
Promoting TOD areas results in an efficient use of land and can potentially reduce car-based travel as jobs are brought closer to homes. Designing with principles of TOD requires a certain amount of cautiousness. One of the first experimental projects was carried out in the suburban landscape of Laguna West in Sacramento, California. It wasn’t as successful as intended because the consumer taste for pre-existing suburban houses was not taken into consideration. It led to inadequate employment opportunities and not enough provision of consumer needs.
On the other hand, TOD areas are much more successful in European countries like the Netherlands. Although this is helped by higher pedestrian activity and the widespread use of public transport in Europe, local culture also has a role to play. The success of TOD areas in the Netherlands is contributed by the scale at which it was implemented and residents’ attitude of public transit and the use of active travel like walking and cycling.
The above examples illustrate that bringing about changes within the urban landscape is dependent on community acceptance, forward policy-making and community acceptance. As urban planners, developers and architects we are constantly dealing with dueling perspectives while working on new projects. Not only do we need to position ourselves to respond to the global discussion on tackling climate change, but we also need to think about the local impact of our work.
A lot of planning departments in cities worldwide are adopting a community-based planning approach to encourage residents to be involved in urban regeneration projects. These have proven to be successful in every context and nowadays many urban designers consider engaging with the local community as a vital step in the design process. If residents don’t feel like they have a place in the planning system or a sense of belonging to the city, they cannot be urged to change their behavior and make better choices.
Note: This article was first published in Property EU Magazine (Netherlands), March 2019 special issue.