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: 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.

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. This shift is incremental and revolutionary. Every Mega Watt generated at a private home, or office carries real market value while building energy independence. 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.


Urban Planning for Environmental Sustainability: Eco-density, Environment and Climate: Challenges & Opportunities

  • A review of ten policy initiatives demonstrates the range of opportunities that present as we contemplate sunsetting our dependence on oil and carbon. It also puts in sharp relief the challenges that must still be overcome to achieve net gains.

1. Reduced Demand 

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

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

2. The ‘Solar Day’

The ‘solar day’ measures the balance in energy inputs and outputs in buildings outfitted with roof-top solar panels. A solar day is any a 24-hour period when the amount of solar radiation captured on the roof produces sufficient electricity to power the energy demand housed below the roof.

Roof mounted solar panels increase energy supply at the site of consumption, saving the 6% transmission loss usually associated with electrical distribution.

3. Smart Electric Networks

Plugging every roof panel into a smart grid creates a giant photovoltaic array out of the roof scape of every city, neighbourhood and town.

Smart Electrical Networks—both distributing and collecting electric energy—make it possible to generate power where it is consumed, saving the 6% transmission losses, while flooding the system with surplus energy at times when supply exceeds demand.

4. Energy Storage in Electric Car Batteries

The batteries of electric vehicles (EVs) parked at work can be pressed into service. They can morph into an abundant repository of storage capacity dispersed on a movable platform all over the smart grid. This economic advantage ‘kicks in’ the moment they are plugged into the grid.

5. Electric Cars

By running the automobile fleet electric North America will reduce one third of its carbon footprint. Full stop. Compared to the gasoline guzzler electric cars last 2x as long and cost 0.5x as much to service and repair. Thus, electric vehicles are 4x more affordable than conventional cars. However, take full note here: the daunting transportation challenge of the future will be managing road congestion as cheap and clean electric cars are in use everywhere, rather than worrying about air pollution.

6. Affordable Housing

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

The baseline proposition for any ‘good’ urbanism is that (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 as determined by locally defined conditions.

7. The Walkable City Principle

Walkable neighbourhoods and towns reduce car use by 50%. As the fleet turns electric this factor will increase in importance as a means to reduce dependence on EVs.

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

7. The Livable Street Principle

The livability of the street correlates inversely with the volume of traffic (Appleyard, 1980).

Thus, reducing vehicular use enhances the livability of the places we call home. 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 fronting-the-street demands exacting standards in the construction and use the public rights of way. Low traffic volumes represent the primary threshold.

8. 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;
  • cycling, and
  • walking

9. Architecture Made from ‘Renewable’ Materials

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

  • maximized 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.

10. 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 it has a hole in the middle—everything else is just pastry. 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.

*   *   *   *

Just these 10 examples from urban science present the potential for building cities functioning as ‘wholes greater than the sum of their parts.’ We can summarize the elements gained in the quotient as:

  • Economic vitality and resilience;
  • The end of dependence on oil and coal; and
  • The ‘happiness index’ rising as cities achieve high-levels of social functioning.


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.

*   *   *   *

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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