Rethinking urban energy: How Europe is leading the way

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The energy transformation touches every aspect of city services, including power generation and distribution, heating and cooling systems, building energy efficiency, transportation, water and waste management, and the efficiency of city services such as street lighting. [Almond Butterscotch / Flickr]

To achieve ambitious climate goals in line with the Paris Agreement, cities will need to implement major changes to their energy systems by 2030. The good news is that the transformation in the energy sector is making such ambitious programmes much more feasible and European cities are in the forefront, writes Eric Woods.

Eric Woods is a research director with Navigant. In a new white paper, Navigating the Urban Energy Transformation, he describes critical elements of the emerging city energy landscape and reviews the key recommendations for cities and their partners.

Navigant characterises the current transformation in the energy sector as the emergence of the Energy Cloud. The Energy Cloud represents a radical transformation of energy markets to a more dynamic network of stakeholders, technologies, and infrastructure. It envisions a world in which the power supply is cleaner and more distributed, where digital transformation embraces artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain-enabled networks, and where widespread electrification of transportation means that power supply and demand become increasingly mobile.

This transformation touches every aspect of city services and infrastructure including power generation and distribution, heating and cooling systems, building energy efficiency, transportation, water and waste management, and the efficiency of city services such as street lighting. At the same time, city operations are being transformed by digital technologies such as IoT, smart buildings, artificial intelligence, robotics, and automated vehicles.

One of the most important developments for cities looking to transform their energy profile is the interlinking of the energy sector with buildings and transportation. A zero-carbon city will need to address the role of fossil fuels in space heating and in transportation. Improvements in energy efficiency and the shift to renewable resources are essential steps. Even more importantly, it is the much closer connection between buildings and transportation and the energy network that will lay the foundation for a new Urban Energy Cloud.

Across Europe, many cities are already exploring the future interconnection of energy, buildings, and transport, including more than 70 cities involved in 12 EU Horizon 2020 Smart City and Communities projects. Sharing Cities, for example, is a €25 million EU Horizon 2020 project led by London, Milan, and Lisbon. The 3-year project, launched in January 2016, is developing, deploying, and integrating replicable solutions across the energy, transport, data, and information and communications technologies sectors. The London projects alone include energy efficiency, renewable energy, urban mobility, and smart parking projects. One of the most ambitious projects is the development of a sustainable energy management system that is consolidating and analysing energy data from smart meters and other intelligent devices to optimise energy production and consumption at a community-level.

One of the biggest challenges for cities is to understand the interplay between the different elements of the low carbon city. What platforms—technical and commercial—will enable a digital, low carbon, sustainable economy to thrive? What forms of collaboration across sectors are necessary, and what common infrastructure is required? And how can new transportation services, zero-carbon housing, local microgrids, and smart street programs address the issues facing poorer communities?

Several basic steps can help cities be better prepared to address these issues:

  • Clear, actionable climate plans are necessary to realize the potential of local climate action and to help navigate the alternative options where emissions will be locked in and choices are complex (e.g., district versus electric heating, hydrogen versus electrified transport, in-depth versus superficial building renovations).
  • Cities need to continue to raise the bar on traditional approaches to urban design and construction. This includes embedding smart and sustainable design principles in urban planning processes. The potential of digital technologies needs to be considered as part of any new development.
  • Pilot projects should be closely aligned to city priorities and assessed for business viability and for the potential for expansion. The focus should be on mainstreaming innovations and quickly scaling up positive pilot project results.
  • Cities should look to create platforms for collaboration and procurement on which cities and other stakeholders can drive innovation (technology and business models), develop business cases, execute pilots, and form partnerships to implement and scale new energy solutions.

The challenge for cities therefore is also one of orchestration. City governments need to create the conditions under which stakeholders can quickly move from developing a mutual understanding of each other’s needs and challenges to co-creating stable, scalable, and replicable solutions. There is no final endpoint determined by a single, engineered system. These complex environments need to evolve through a process of innovation, monitoring, and learning.

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