Five ways cities can tame the beast

Taking control of the energy transition

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 need 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.

So how can cities prepare?

1. Take stock of your situation

Cities of any size need to assess where they are today: current energy consumption and usage patterns plus existing infrastructure assets.

Taking this to the next level then gets interesting. What is the capacity of the existing systems (at a basic level, 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? Capacity maps for all the main utilities are essential, as identifying bottlenecks now can reap huge benefits later.

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

2. Consider your 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 establish a clear direction of travel.

Electric vehicles need to form part of your 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 effectively prevents many from joining the electric vehicle 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, though your city may want to decarbonise more quickly. You may have ageing assets due for replacement, or you may need more resilience. In these cases, decisions may be needed sooner rather than later.

Now is the time to be talking to the electricity distributor about upping capacity for electric vehicle charging and heat pumps across urban centres.

3. Look to your neighbours

The energy transition is all about collaboration. With the datasets 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 a huge amount of heat off the roof)? Do neighbouring businesses need to charge their electric delivery vans overnight perhaps while you need to charge yours during the day?

Network pinch points, particularly electrical, are going to drive us together into local problem solving, with city representatives playing a huge part in facilitating and leading that collaboration. 

4. Use energy scenarios

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 the unique position of playing 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, vehicles and digitalisation are clear, and though there is much talk about hydrogen, realistically this is beyond the planning horizon for most. That said, now may be the time for cities to make their systems at least ‘hydrogen ready’ in some way. 

5. Start taking small steps now

The thousand-mile journey really does start with a single step. There are some certainties: photovoltaic panels will generate carbon-free electricity for 25 years, energy efficiency always makes long term sense and electric vehicles are only going to grow. Local interventions to lower emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulates are simply the right thing to do.

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

Look for support and don’t wait for a clear plan. Globally, cities are doing some incredible things, take a look at the example set by the C40 cities.

Written by John Armstrong

John Armstrong is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a global energy MBA. He worked at E.ON for 15 years until June 2020, including roles in engineering governance, asset risk and safety, and most recently as Head of Operations for E.ON’s decentralised city energy systems. 

Posted March 2020