Subterranean battles for sustainable cities

Are subterranean battles holding back sustainable cities?

I was absolutely fascinated to learn that the world’s first coal-fired power station at the Holborn viaduct (just around the corner from E.ON’s Citigen) was sited where it was because at the time only the gas companies were allowed to dig in the road. The Holborn viaduct provided culverts that Thomas Edison could use to get his power to the 18 street lights without having to dig and thus he avoided the need to challenge the monopoly the town gas companies had at the time.

It is fascinating to think of Thomas Edison, with his technology that would change the entire world, being thwarted by local rules and regulations in the centre of London – even though he had something truly revolutionary, he could not get it out without finding ways to circumnavigate the existing regulations and monopolies.

Walking around our cities, if you take a moment to look down, you can often see a multi-coloured marking showing the location of utilities. These can often highlight just how congested everything has become. Some utilities have legal rights to access their equipment under the highway – often causing traffic chaos at the same time! Other technologies do not enjoy such protection and support; low carbon heat networks for example, get none of the regulatory assistance that gas networks do.

In all future energy pathways the utilities in the ground are going to have to change. With power demand going up (to deliver energy for heating and electric vehicles), cable size is likely to increase, and as cities grow more sewage and water capacity will be required. The new utility in town, heat networks, which require large insulated pipes, will also be jostling for space.

As we develop new technologies for cities we need to consider how the incumbents often have the cards loaded in their favour. With legal protection and statutory rights (as well as long established assets), it can be difficult for new technologies to get a look in. Just as Thomas Edison found in 1882, the environment favoured the status quo over a technology that would ultimately change the world.

To achieve the great energy transition we are going to have to make some tough calls about what gets priority in the ground and how utilities can work together to make the best use of limited space. This will require collaboration, improved regulation and strong leadership to support technologies capable of delivering the low carbon cities to which we rightly aspire. 

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.