The sunset of coal and oil, and the rise of energy self-sufficiency in urbanism

The greatest convergence of innovations for curbing energy demand, managing environmental pollution, and reducing carbon emissions is taking place inside the urban footprint.

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STILL FROM THE FILM WHY BEAUTY MATTERS (2009, L. Lockwood, Director; R. Scruton author & presenter)

New technologies available today make eliminating carbon emissions from transportation and energy generation the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the push to clean the environment. In turn, positive results found in the places we call home present as new opportunities in the workplace, and in industries like forestry and mining.

Electric cars; 83% efficient LED-lighting; smart electric grids; wind and solar energy generation; these are combining with new building technologies for human-scale architecture; affordable housing; livable streets; walkable neighbourhoods; commuter rail transit and urban rooms to achieve what was once thought impossible. Canada and the U.S. will achieve energy self-sufficiency within our lifetime, raising the social functioning of our communities while adding value to our economies.

Similar developments underway in other areas of the globe are promising dramatic results in the hot-spots of geopolitical friction, including: the Middle East, the South China Sea, and the OPEC nations.

Update 30 July 2017: North Carolina cancels two nuclear reactors

The end of our reliance on oil and carbon is in sight as shown by the crash in oil prices in the winter of 2015|2016 followed by lingering sluggishness. Fifty dollars appears as the top price for a barrel of crude about 50% below where it was seen to be just a few years ago. This shift is incremental and revolutionary. Every Mega Watt generated at a private home, or office carries real market value while simultaneously building toward energy independence. In turn, energy independence presents the greatest promise in the equatorial regions where sunshine is abundant, and where the poorest populations huddle in our most populous cities.

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ENERGY GENERATION FOR TRANSPORTATION, INDUSTRY AND URBANISM

The range of opportunities that present as we contemplate the sunset of oil and carbon fuel use throws into sharp relief the extent to which fossil fuels are at the root of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming and climate change.

The central role energy plays in our economy quickly comes to the foreground once we start considering the advantages of making fossil fuels obsolete.

1. Energy Security

The most consequential result obtained by switching from oil and carbon to renewable energy will be the eradication of the oil dollar from the international scene. All manner of global hot-spots fizzle when oil dollars are taken off the table. The Middle East, the Gulf of Arabia and the South China Sea lose their strategic importance once the price of oil is more or less at the level of the value of the sands that hold it.

Gone will be the prospect of economies held hostage by an oil embargoes, production quotas and oil cartels. In its place, each mega watt of energy produced locally represents real GDP.

 

2. Energy Independence

Energy independence can be measured in ‘Solar Days’. The same principle that applies to a home or workplace can be used to measure energy self-sufficiency at the level of the district, city, region and nation.

The ‘solar day’ denotes a 24-hour period when a building is energy self sufficient. That is, when energy created on say roof installed photovoltaics equals or exceeds the energy used by people inside.

Generating energy at the source of consumption comes with a small added bonus. Energy supplied at the point of consumption saves the 6% transmission loss typically associated with electrical distribution. Reducing the need for cables on towers and telephone poles is also an added benefit.

 

3. Energy Efficiency 

At the work place and at home, we can reduced demand by combining:

  • high-efficiency appliances, including LEDs
  • localized power generation, and
  • increased thermal performance of building envelopes.

 

4. Energy Infrastructure 

Putting photovoltaics on every roof and plugging every roof panel into a smart grid will create a giant solar array out of the roof scape of every city, neighbourhood and town. Investment from the public and private sectors in energy infrastructure can power the economy of all nations on the globe, creating jobs and opportunities for innovation.

Because the grid is ‘smart’ it can track energy demand (debits) with energy supply (credits) raising awareness around energy use and efficiency at every workplace and home.

 

5. Energy Storage in Electric Car Batteries

Smart Electrical Networks will flooding the system with surplus energy creating the need for massive and flexible energy storage at times when supply exceeds demand.

The batteries of parked electric vehicles (EVs) can be pressed into service. Our vehicle fleet can morph into an moving storage platform carrying capacity on wheels from point A to point B inside the smart grid. This storage capacity advantage ‘kicks in’ the moment a car is plugged in.

 

6. Electric Cars

By running the automobile fleet electric North America will reduce one third of the overall carbon footprint in Canada, 24% in the US. Full stop. Compared to the gasoline guzzler electric cars last 2x as long and cost 0.5x as much to service and repair. Electric vehicles are 4x more affordable than conventional cars.

When the technology goes into mass production the true scale of the savings to assemble an electric motor vs. a gasoline engine will come into focus. It may be as much as an order of difference once interchangeable off-the-shelf components enter wide distribution and car makers fully embrace use of plug-in components, computers and third party software.

The daunting transportation challenge of the future will be managing road congestion as cheap, clean and electric cars come into use everywhere.

 

ADAPTING URBANISM TO RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGIES

We often overlook the impact of fossil fuels on urban form. From pollution to streets over run by automobiles, the progress made by adopting oil and carbon fuels has been had at a high price.

In the case of congestion in the public rights of way a lot of the damage has been self-inflicted. Urbanism has been slow to respond to the challenges and the opportunities presented by popular mass transportation.

Here are key principles in urbanism that can maximize returns from the adoption of renewable energy technologies.

1. The Walkable City Principle

Walkable neighbourhoods and towns reduce car use by 50%. As the fleet turns electric this factor will increase in importance becoming critical as mass adoption of EVs threatens to generate massive traffic congestion.

When services and shops are located just a short walking distance from every front door folks will walk rather than drive.

As importantly, one of these services should be ‘big pipe’ transit stops where fast and efficient electric trains whisk commuters to regional destinations.

The other end of the commuting trip must also end in a walkable district or else the commuter will be ‘stranded on arrival’ and the effectiveness of mass transit will be dealt a significant setback.

2. The Livable Street Principle

The livability of the street correlates inversely with the volume of traffic (Appleyard, 1980). We can design urban districts to encourage walking thereby reducing vehicular use. We only need to pause here for a moment to understand that walkable neighborhoods therefore enhance the livability of the places we call home. Bringing the logic full circle, livable streets create walkable neighborhoods and vice versa.

A walkable urbanism of livable streets should be the baseline proposition of every city and neighborhood plan. It is not necessary to build tall towers to keep us from the ‘dirty street down below’. Streets with low EV volumes are ‘clean and quiet streets’. They are safe streets for cycling, walking and children at play.

Human-scale architecture with 67% of all doors on-the-street demands exacting standards in the construction and use the public rights of way. As we turn to re-examine the default position in North American urbanism, where cars get priority on the street, and ‘adding density’ has been presented as the cure-all for every ill—except runaway housing prices—a new possibility emerges.

Lowering traffic volumes presents as the primary threshold. The rest follows.

3. The Declension of Vehicular Trips Principle

Making streets livable requires displacing trips from private cars to alternative modes of transportation, including:

  • rail commuter transit and trolley buses; and
  • walking.

Cycling enthusiasts will ponder why the two-wheeled solution is not being proposed. The reality is that in cities that are not built on flat terrain, or in climates that are not ideal, cycling is more of a recreational pastime than a real alternative.

 

4. The Donut Principle

High-levels of social mixing in public open spaces raise the ‘happiness index’ in neighbourhoods and towns. We call it ‘the donut principle’ because urbanism that supports high levels of social functioning  has a hole in the middle.

Since ancient classical times ‘good urbanism’ has featured a people place at the ‘heart’ of every district. A square or piazza, an ‘urban room’ or ‘public space’ defines the center of the walkable community. You know where you are because you remember where you left that piazza behind.

A physical ‘empty space’ becomes the ‘go to place’ for convenience, service, and just meeting people—it is the fun place to go. Of course, urban rooms don’t stay empty for long. They can function as nodes on regional transit networks, provide goods and services, restaurants and cafes, and offer at no extra charge high levels of social mixing for people living just a 5 minute walking distance away. Neighbours bump into one another by accident without calling or texting. No matter the time of the day or season of the year something is always happening there.

In a consumer culture now three generations deep in the habit of driving to the mall parking lot for everything, the ‘hole in the middle of the neighbourhood’ injects social mixing opportunities for all people housed all along its periphery.

5. Affordable Housing

The 1930s Jazz standard “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”  alerts us to the core issue in urbanism: if the working family cannot afford to own the place they call home, then all our good efforts have been wasted. ‘Good’ urbanism is first and foremost about levelling inequalities that regularly crop up in the competitive market economy.

The baseline propositions for any ‘good’ urbanism are:

(a) people can find ‘good’ employment;

(b) that they can afford to own the roof over their heads and the food in their pantry; and

(c) a ‘decent’ standard of living and life expectancy is determined democratically by locally defined conditions.

6. Architecture Made from ‘Renewable’ Materials

Human-scale buildings built from renewable materials—i.e. timber construction—present the following advantages:

  • optimal thermal performance,
  • natural fire inhibiting characteristics, and
  • reduced energy consumption.

This architecture points us toward the goal of self-sufficiency. It approaches as a limit the point in time when roof-top solar panels can deliver ‘solar days’ year round.

 

SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIAL PROCESSES

In rough terms transportation, urbanism and industry each account for about ⅓ of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

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Ecological Management of Forests and Mining

The positive results of building ‘good urbanism’ as the baseline strategy for achieving economic growth; environmental recovery; and rising levels of social mixing will impact every corner of modern societies.

In mining and forestry, for example, ‘good urbanism’ signals the end to mining coal, drilling for oil and ignoring renewable forest practices.

In mining, the opportunity presents for shifting operations from mining coal to metals, producing the raw materials for the smart grid components that will link together rooftop solar panels to create giant arrays of renewable energy generation in every city, neighbourhood and town.

In forestry, new engineered wood products can build 5-storey, human-scale buildings that are: resistant to fire, earthquake and flood; light-weight and flexible; wrapped in high-performance thermal barriers reducing both cooling and heating loads. Managing national forests as carbon sinks—as well as the source of renewable structural materials—reaps advantages on both sides of the carbon equation. On the one hand, leafs, bark, roots and wood capture carbon. On the other, replacing high-carbon technologies like concrete and steel with wood saves carbon emissions.

Today, the social, environmental and economic strategies for sustainability receive their greatest boost from within the urban footprint. Industry is sure to follow. The consensus is building acknowledging that best way to save ‘pristine nature’ is to build ‘good cities’. As a natural species, humans inhabit the environments we build. We can only raise the quality of the places we call home by balancing inputs and outputs in the construction of our cities and the many many networks that feed them, including: energy, transit, waste-disposal, water, food, and communications.

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Proposal submitted to the 2016 SFU CCICED symposium.

3 thoughts on “The sunset of coal and oil, and the rise of energy self-sufficiency in urbanism”

  1. “8. The Declension of Vehicular Trips Principle”

    This is a new meaning of the word “declension” that I had not come across before.

    Could I also ask that you also consider the humble bus? In the space occupied two cars (carrying on average 3 people between them) a 40 foot city bus can carry up to 60 people. Simple geometry makes that a far more efficient use of a road. In places like Vancouver where we have electric trolleybuses running from existing hydro sources – and regenerative braking – that is nearly zero GHG per passenger (cars average 0.44 kg of CO2 per mile). Even a diesel bus is better (0.18 kg/km per passenger) source: US DOT MOBILE 6.2 model

  2. First, let me repeat the ‘accusation’ I made yesterday to you…

    That three years ago or so when I felt the need to ‘get up to speed on transportation’ I turned to your website to achieve that purpose. Your readers/commentators as well as yourself present an unparalleled source of information and knowledge on modern transportation.

    The bus… and bus #11 as we called it as boys growing up in Montevideo when we simply walked… form the backbone of every good transportation system, and are a hallmark of ‘good’ urbanism.

    As you point out, in our region we should recommend highly the electric trolley bus with its nearly ‘silent running’ doing the heavy lifting in our public transportation system. I look forward to battery operated mini-buses performing the acrobatics of the small buses running in the historic center of Roma today.

    However, in our city, we have to decry that the 99 Bus Line was not implemented with the same imperatives Curitiba adopted back in 1976. Their motto runs along the same lines as your analysis: “Three hundred people on one bus should have priority over one car.”

    Curitiba Rapid Bus Principles:

    • Quick boarding (fare paid)
    • Dedicated lanes
    • One-minute headway
    • Signal priority (buses trip traffic lights)

    Along with the Skytrain, the 99 Bus Line in our city has served two masters at one and the same time: the public, providing good transportation; and ‘bad’ urbanism, helping to blight the neighbourhoods they cross. Rather than functioning like a ‘neighborhood spine’ the 99 B-Line’s Broadway today operates as ‘an open traffic sewer’.

    We have to find a way to do both: provide ‘good’ transportation and build a ‘good’ urbanism. And I know we both agree on this point, the two go hand-in-hand.

    Thus, the concrete and verifiable measures of ‘good’ urbanism should be seen as providing the common ground empowering all city design professionals to pull in the same direction.

    Here is a question back to you that I am not qualified to answer: Could we use electric trolley for the 99 Bus Line? Is it the need to overtake the 9 local bus (using the same road space) that dictates the articulated diesel for the 99 route? As we discussed yesterday, a 99 B-Line with dedicated right-of-way, and/or an upgrade to a modern streetcar on Broadway, could both of those technologies perform the dual role of the 9-local and the 99-express?

    Of course… the 3 Billion Dollar Broadway Subway option, we all agreed, was not supported by either ridership, or any future estimated trip demand.

    1. “Could we use electric trolley for the 99 Bus Line? ”

      Yes. There are places where there are parallel sets of wires for an express and local trolleybus service on the same street. Hastings St between downtown and the PNE – although no express trolleybus service now operates. And also the Granville Bridge.

      Our trolleybuses require someone (usually the operator) to raise and lower the poles. There are other options. Some cities are now using rapid recharge at the bus stop and battery/capacitor in between. Or under the road induction transmission. Battery and hybrid designs are continually improving.

      “could both of those technologies perform the dual role of the 9-local and the 99-express?”

      With a dedicated right of way, transit reliability increases enough that the distinction between local and express becomes less important. People are willing to walk further to a stop that provides better service. However, for longer distance travel, express (non-stop) service can still attract more riders. These express services do not have to be routed along multipurpose streets that have many local attractions on them. So not every passenger actually wants to be on Broadway.

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