The vision is fuelled by a fear of climate change and the need to find green alternatives to dirty coal, unpopular nuclear power and unreliable gas imports from Russia. A vision of future cities as self-contained units, their buildings gleaning energy from the powerful weather systems sweeping across their roofs and feeding it to homes below and vehicles in the streets.
Electric cars in garages would double up as battery packs when energy supplies are scarce. Every scrap of waste food, garden trimmings and even sewage would be used to ferment gas.
Evolving to survive
The idea of self-sufficient cities is gaining currency in the European Union, which has set itself the ambitious task of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to a fifth below 1990 levels by 2020—the biggest cuts anywhere in the world.
“In 25 years from now, millions of buildings...will be constructed to serve as both ‘power plants’ and habitats,” says writer and economist Jeremy Rifkin, who has advised governments and corporations on tackling climate change and energy security. At the hub of the system would be a “smart electricity grid” that allows electricity to flow where it is needed most and dissipates the energy spikes as weather systems sweep through.
“The more fluctuating energy you have from renewables, the more it makes sense to have a smart grid,” Markus Ewert, from the new technologies team of German utility E.ON, says. “It would help stabilize the energy flows so you don’t come up against the limits of the grid. Electric vehicles could be connected to the grid and could store energy at times when too much is produced, and they could feed it back into the grid when there’s not enough.”
While utilities such as E.ON are looking for opportunities, there is also strong suspicion that others are trying to preserve their vested interests and slow the pace of change in Brussels, the main driver of European climate regulation. It gained fuel in January when a plan to put €500 million ($645.5 million) into researching smart cities was scrapped.
“It’s stunning that funding was kicked out, and it’s pretty clear the big electricity utilities were not innocent,” says Claude Turmes, member of Luxembourg’s Green Party, who helped draft EU green energy policy last year.
The reason the funding was dropped is not clear, but the challenge facing Europe’s big power generators is obvious: Insulating or rebuilding Europe’s rickety housing stock could cut heating bills anywhere between 30-80%, slashing demand for their product.
Autonomy of power
Not only would smart cities slowly reduce energy needs, they would also start producing their own over time. Much of the technology needed is still a distant dream, but not all of it.
French construction company Bouygues is working on an office in Meudon, western Paris, which uses 4,000 sq. m of solar panels to meet not only its own energy needs but also to export surplus energy back to the power grid. Eric Mazoyer, deputy managing director of Bouygues Immobilier, says, “Because tenants will pay 60% less in electricity bills, we can charge higher rents and we will sell the surplus of electricity back to (French utility) EDF.”
Myriad examples exist across Europe, but at the heart of the plan is the philosophy that energy, ideas and enthusiasm are most easily shared in densely populated areas. “Cities are perfect for promoting change and renewable energies,” says Turmes. “Cities can serve as innovation platforms, creating clusters of businesses around green energy, and they control urban planning and parking slots so they can promote electric transport systems.”
Environmentalists see another advantage to local entities—a degree of autonomy beyond the reach of federal governments which enables them to make tough decisions, such as California’s climate goals and London’s congestion charges.
In February, the mayors and deputies of about 350 cities, mainly European, came to Brussels to sign a covenant, pledging to cut their cities’ greenhouse gas emissions above and beyond the EU targets. European energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs estimates the cities involved will together save $10 billion a year in fuel.
E.ON’s Ewert says one winning technology could be biogas, fermented from farm and domestic waste or even sewage, and then piped through existing gas networks. “Biogas can be produced at a much smaller scale than natural gas, and without such huge investments,” he says. “The infrastructure is already there.”