MAGAZINE SPECIAL REPORT: The future is an electric one

A massive increase in the use of electricity is the only way to achieve a zero-carbon global economy, delegates heard at ULI’s annual conference in London in February.

Picture this: you step outside your hi-tech, super insulated home to begin your short commute to work as the solar-powered street lights dim. You only go into the office twice a week now as your home is work/live shared space. You unplug the electric pool-car from one of the many on-street charging points and drive off down the quiet, tree-lined streets passing soundless electric buses, packs of cyclists in wide open cycle lanes, on your way to your wind-powered office.

This might seem like a distant urban dream, but if the developed world is to maintain its standard of living then the picture painted above is where we need to get to. The future is electric, and urban design and construction are critical to achieving the zero-carbon world that we urgently need.

Except for a small minority, most people nowadays accept that human behaviour is increasing global temperatures. The risks of volatile global temperatures are ever more apparent. From the freezing temperatures in Chicago this winter to the wildfires simultaneously plaguing Australia. Flooding and drought are now regular occurrences in parts of the developed world where once we only read about them in far-flung underdeveloped places.

‘The Paris Accord’s objective of limiting global warning to well below 2 degrees, and ideally to 1.5 degrees, centigrade is a very well founded one,’ Lord Adair Turner, chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), told the 650-strong audience gathered in London for the Urban Land Institute’s annual conference.

‘We believe we have got to achieve the Paris climate objectives and to do that it’s clear that we have got to take the global economy to around zero net emissions by 2060. And I mean zero net emissions,’ said Lord Turner, the former chairman of UK regulator the Financial Service Authority.

Technically, by 2060 it is possible to have a zero-carbon global economy, Lord Turner told ULI delegates. But to do so, all industries must change and that includes the design and construction of buildings.

Renewable energy
Energy efficiency is one core to the Paris Accord target. To achieve that, architects and urban designers must start developing zero-carbon-emitting buildings and making construction materials, such as cement and steel, in the most efficient manner. Insulation, of course, is also vital to energy efficiency.

If we can make these changes, the developed world can maintain its current modern standard of living with around 70 or 80 gigajoules of energy per capita, instead of the current 290 used in the US or the 130 in Europe, according to ETC research.

‘The only way to get to a zero-carbon economy is through a massive increase in the role of electricity in our economies. At the moment at the point of final energy demand the energy we use from electricity is about 20-25%. That will have to go up to something like 65 or 70% by 2050 if we are to have any chance of building a zero-carbon economy,’ Lord Turner said. Renewables will have to play a pivotal role in all future energy production. The cost of wind and solar has fallen dramatically over the past decade. Solar energy now costs 10% of what it did 10 years ago, while wind energy costs about 30% less. This has surpassed all expectations.

New forms of technology and energy storage will fill the gap when the weather doesn’t perform as we wish. The price of batteries is now over 80% lower than it was in 2010 and it is expected to halve in price again by 2024. This will produce a revolution in electric vehicles and deal with the problems of overnight energy storage.

Lord Turner said the ETC is convinced that it will be possible to take wind and solar energy to 85% of electricity generation. The remaining 15% could be dealt with in a set of storage and flexible mechanisms. ‘That system, within 10 or 15 years, will produce 24/7 electricity when we need it at a lower cost than fossil fuels,’ he said.

Urban design
With the world population set to rise from 7.7 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050, more and more people will continue to move into the world’s cities. An intensive demand for materials, particularly steel, has increased with population growth creating its own set of challenges. An example of the impact the exodus to metropolises can have is found in China. Between 2012 and 2017 China used more concrete than America did in the whole of the 20th century because of its urbanisation.

China’s urbanisation will reach completion within the next decade but how the rest of the world builds cities is vital. Four aspects of urban design and building will be critical. First, design to support 100% transport electrification. Second, designing for overall transport efficiency. Third, the use of building materials and lastly, reducing the carbon impact of construction through better design, reuse and recycling.

‘We need a world in which cars go electric. We need a world where buses are electric. And if you were in China that’s going to happen. By 2025 China will have every one of its one million urban buses electric,’ Lord Turner said.

To speed up the switch to electric cars, future cities will need to have pervasive electric charging points. But it’s not just about electrifying cities for transport, the layout of cities matters in terms of transport efficiency too. Cities need to be designed so they are denser and less spread-out. Urban spaces need to be able to support better public transport, cycling and pedestrians so that fewer people need to drive.

The way we view car ownership in cities has to change, Lord Turner said, although car ownership is declining among younger city dwellers, most people still own cars that rarely get used. Cars ‘sit absorbing immensely expensive real estate. If you compared the rental value of that space if it was available space for other purposes versus what we are charging for parking permits, it’s nothing like the full economic cost. This is an enormous waste of space in a densely packed city, and a huge opportunity to free up space to make more attractive cities – greener and easier to get around’, he said.

Heating and cooling homes is also a critical component in the goal to reduce carbon emissions. Designing homes to be warm when it’s cold and cold when it’s hot will be a key challenge for architects and designers.

Some of us may not be around in 2060 to see the full electrification of cities and transformation of urban living but what a legacy it would be to leave future generations. The property industry has a lot of work ahead of it, but the challenges are exciting and transformational.

Mission Possible
There are major opportunities to cut CO2 emissions from the industrial sectors by reducing demand versus business-as-usual trends through more efficient use of materials. This entails two major developments:

¦ Making better use of existing stocks of materials through greater and better recycling and reuse;

¦ Reducing the materials requirements in key value chains (e.g. transport, buildings, consumer goods, etc.) through improved product design, longer product lifetime, and new sharing business models (e.g. car sharing).

The circular economy is potentially the second biggest lever for co2 emissions reduction after clean electrification. Developing a more circular economy by using materials more efficiently should be a crucial element in any strategy to reach net-zero carbon emissions from the energy and industrial systems, for multiple reasons:

¦ A more circular economy can reduce CO2 emissions from four major industry sectors (plastics, steel, aluminium and cement) by 40% globally, and by 56% in developed economies like Europe by 20501. It is potentially the second biggest lever for CO2 emissions reduction after clean electrification.

¦ Circular economy models also bring co-benefits, such as decreasing risks of materials scarcity, reducing other social and environmental impacts of the mining and production of materials (for instance water pollution), and limiting waste leakages in the environment (in particular plastics waste).

The importance of scrap-based steel recycling relative to virgin production will therefore increase gradually throughout the 21st century. The pace of this shift will make a big difference to virgin production needs and, as a result, to carbon emissions from the steel sector, since scrap-based steel production is far less carbon-intensive than virgin steel production and could become effectively zero-carbon once electricity is decarbonised.

Decarbonising cement production is likely to account for over 50% of the overall cost of decarbonising heavy industry, and a still higher percentage if the availability of very low-cost electricity reduces the cost of decarbonising steel and chemicals.

Source: The Energy Transitions Commission ‘Mission Possible’ report

Four Opportunities
There are four major opportunities for greater materials efficiency in the construction sector:

¦ First, waste reduction, eliminating the 10 to 20% materials that industry experts believe are wasted on average during construction;

¦ Second, reuse of building materials, thanks to buildings designed so that structural elements – in particularly steel and concrete elements – can be reused when existing buildings undergo major rebuilds or even reused in new buildings;

¦ Third, greater materials efficiency, for instance avoiding the over-specification of structural elements;

¦ Fourth, and more speculatively, a reduction in typical floorspace use per capita, via a shift to a more shared approach, especially for office spaces, but also potentially for some residential spaces (for example, sharing a laundry space or a children’s playroom).

Source: The Energy Transitions Commission ‘Mission Possible’ report


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