Energy Efficiency and Resiliency: The New Urban Challenge

Cities around the world have not had much time to adapt to the fast-changing environment they face. Demographic pressure, increased pollution, and new demands must be dealt with. As they grow, cities have had to contend with new realities to bring power to their people.

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities—55 percent according to the Population Division of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs—and this trend toward increased urbanization is expected to continue, reaching 68 percent by 2050. Urban life provides distinct advantages, including the connectivity that is essential for economic growth; greater opportunities for education, employment, and other drivers of personal development; and access to a wide range of social services that enhance the quality of life. In both the developed and developing world, cities function as economic engines, accounting for more than 80 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).

For the cities of the future to thrive, however, they must address some of the most significant challenges of our time, including the need for infrastructure that is secure, resilient, and sustainable. Resiliency is particularly important in coastal cities, which are vulnerable to the damaging effects of extreme weather and rising sea levels.

These challenges are especially acute with respect to energy. All the elements needed for urban residential and commercial life—buildings, transportation systems, water and wastewater systems, communication networks, and more—require an adequate, reliable, and secure supply of energy. Any interruption in supply has immediate effects, ranging from simple inconvenience to potentially dangerous conditions in mission-critical facilities, such as hospitals.

The northeast blackout of 2003 affected multiple U.S. states and resulted in a loss of power for 55 million people. Weather conditions and technical problems in Ohio demonstrated how extensively a power loss can affect entire areas and contiguous communities. Another example is India’s blackout of 2012, which affected a staggering 620 million people. In South Australia, the blackout of 2016 was one of many cases of widespread power outages that were caused by weather, in this instance, storm damage to electricity infrastructure. And what about the energy shortage, in Belgium?


Growing Appetite for Energy

The global demand for energy is on the upswing, largely due to economic growth. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 28 percent increase in world energy use by 2040. In 2017 it grew by 2.1 percent, which is more than twice the previous year’s rate. The lion’s share of global energy consumption falls to the industrial sector, but personal consumption also accounts for a significant amount of energy use.

Plug loads, or energy used by devices plugged into ordinary electrical outlets, have risen substantially, driven by the widespread use of electronic devices as well as the availability and greater affordability of electrical appliances. The need for cooling, particularly in countries with warmer climates, is also a key factor. A 2018 report from the International Energy Agency estimates that global energy demand related to the use of air-conditioning use will triple by 2050.

The demand for power will also rise with the increased electrification of transportation systems and industrial equipment. The ‘electrification of everything’ is designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and its effect will be largely felt in cities, which account for about 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The transition to electricity in transportation is to be one of the defining features of the cities of the future.

Sustainable Solutions

To cope with the rising demand for energy, cities around the world are developing new and innovative strategies to generate, distribute, and consume energy as cleanly and efficiently as possible, while addressing issues of reliability and security.

One strategy involves the use of microgrids and distributed energy systems that are located close to a point of consumption—generally an area with a defined boundary, such as a residential district, a university, a corporate campus, or military base. Microgrids have primarily been used in isolated areas where there is no ready access to a power grid, but they have implications in the growing trend toward energy decentralization in urban centers.

Microgrids offer a number of benefits to users. They help reduce the cost and potential energy loss involved in transmitting electricity over long distances; they support energy reliability by their ability to disconnect from the grid and operate in ‘islanded’ mode under emergency conditions; and they can contribute to sustainability goals by incorporating renewable energy sources.

In the province of Quebec, Canada, Hydro-Quebec is developing a microgrid in Lac-Mégantic as a way of testing the new technology with the goal of rolling it out elsewhere. Being planned with our assistance, the project calls for the installation of solar panels on 30 residential and commercial buildings with a total of 300 kW installed capacity, 300 kWh of battery storage, and electric vehicle charging stations.

In Australia, we have assisted clients with hybrid off-grid projects ranging from a few hundred kW to a few MW in size. Located in the remote areas of Flinders Island, Rottnest Island, and Coober Pedy, these projects have included a high penetration of renewables (50-70 percent). This included a mixture of wind and solar, as well as some energy storage or demand shifting, and bespoke control systems.

In South Africa, the National Department of Tourism appointed WSP as an as adviser in the development of a solar microgrid to reduce Robben Island’s reliance on diesel generators as a power source.

WSP has been involved from the outset in microgrid planning and implementation. One of our signature projects involved the creation of a district energy and microgrid system serving Las Positas College in Livermore, California. We provided design services for the solar array, the microgrid, the district energy interconnections, the ice thermal storage system, and the flow battery storage system; supervised construction of these components; and provided system management to maximize the use of renewable energy on site.

Energy Smart Buildings

Recent advances in utility-scale battery storage technology are helping to make both commercial and community-oriented microgrids more viable than ever. The focus on energy efficiency also applies to sites that require heating energy, where the use of hot water distribution systems or the conversion of steam-based systems to hot water can help improve efficiency and reduce overall costs.

Another evolving energy strategy is the integration of photovoltaic (PV) elements into building design with the aim of achieving net-zero energy usage—the state at which a building produces as much energy on-site using renewable sources as it consumes annually.

Although building-integrated photovoltaics provide the greatest overall value and cost-effectiveness when they are incorporated into a building’s original design, they can also be added as a retrofit. Selecting appropriate solar technologies and aligning them with the specific needs of the building’s occupants can significantly improve energy efficiency and reliability. In addition, this strategy helps to reduce the carbon footprint of urban buildings, which are a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

World Urban Population
Renewable Production in Reykjavik
Urban Share of Global Energy Demand

Renewables Are Not a Myth

An essential part of the energy picture of the future is the design and installation of large-scale renewable energy systems, including solar, onshore and offshore wind, hydropower, and geothermal. As costs drop and investment levels rise, renewables are playing an increasingly important role in global electricity generation.

The environmental organization CDP reports that of the approximately 570 global cities currently providing data, more than 100 get at least 70 percent of their electricity from renewables. In cities such as Burlington, Vermont in the U.S., Reykjavik in Iceland, and Basel in Switzerland, 100 percent of the electricity needed is provided by renewable sources.

WSP has provided design, project management, and regulatory support services to renewable energy developers around the world and has been awarded a contract to provide detailed design of foundations for the 800-MW Vineyard Wind offshore wind project to be built off the coast of Massachusetts. This initiative will provide enough electricity to power more than 450,000 homes.

In Australia, wind generates nearly a quarter of all the renewable electricity in the National Electricity Market. As a leader in wind developments, WSP has worked on a range of wind projects, including the Silverton Wind Farm, Australia’s sixth largest onshore wind project, as well as the Taralga Wind Farm, which is projected to generate enough renewable energy to power 38,000 homes.

In South Australia, we provided independent technical advice to the Hornsdale Wind Farm, located approximately 20 km north of Jamestown. Consisting of up to 99 wind turbines with a combined generation capacity of 315 MW, Hornsdale is predicted to provide approximately 1,050,000 MWh of electricity to the national power grid annually, helping to reduce Australia’s GHG emissions. Adjacent to the wind farm, Tesla won the contract to construct the Hornsdale Power Reserve, a grid-connected battery to improve grid stability in adverse weather conditions.  

In the case of variable-output renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, energy storage is vital to maintain the balance between energy demand and supply. Effective storage in urban centers can also help to manage demand peaks and deal with power outages.

Leading the Way

Successfully implementing new strategies to satisfy growing energy demand, while meeting the challenges of resiliency, reliability, and security, requires creativity and technical innovation. It also requires committed leadership and effective policy-making.

Major global organizations such as the C40 Cities (with more than 90 participating cities) and the Global Covenant of Mayors (with more than 9,000 participating cities) are helping to promote dialogue and knowledge-sharing to shape visionary energy policies. Cities around the world are continuing to register their commitment to a sustainable energy future, and WSP is leveraging its global experience and comprehensive technical expertise to help them achieve this goal.

As discussed in the 2018 WSP Global Cities Index, San Francisco, Edinburgh, New York, Vancouver, and Washington, DC all have clear policies for the provision of power generation and distribution. These cities are taking actions now to secure a desirable energy future for their citizens.

Edinburgh’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan targets 30 percent of overall energy demand to be supplied by renewables by 2020. Several renewable projects, including the Edinburgh Community Solar Cooperative Solar PV project, have been funded. Work in smart grids includes the Smart Meter Street program that aims to trial smart meters to demonstrate how energy can be saved.

In New York City, the power supply is among the least carbon-intensive in the U.S. It includes nuclear and hydro generation, which accounts for half its needs. Two of the utilities that serve the city are Con Edison and the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Con Edison serves the private and public-sector markets, and NYPA has a role in supplying public-sector buildings. The city and Con Edison have supported state-level initiatives to improve energy efficiency, increase renewable energy, and reduce GHG emissions.

By contrast, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney have experienced some policy uncertainty during the past decade. Specifically, climate change mitigation has resulted in an under-investment in new generation infrastructure to replace aging power stations. In response, the Queensland State Government is addressing clean energy through its Powering Queensland Plan that includes a target of 50 per cent of total energy consumption from renewable energy by 2030, as well as to reduce emissions and act on climate change. The Melbourne and Sydney city councils have commissioned major studies and developed subsequent strategies to address GHG reductions. As a result of these and other initiatives, Australia is on track to meet its renewable energy target obligation of 33,000 GWh by 2020.

While the growing demand for power has touched all corners of the globe, its effects have been felt most acutely in urban centers. Power outages, whether caused by weather or other issues, have underscored the need for power supply that is reliable and resilient.

Cities, working in partnership with utilities, developers and professional service providers, such as WSP, have responded through a combination of energy efficiency and sustainable power generation initiatives. Renewables have figured importantly in these initiatives, and their use is expected to grow. The success of these urban energy strategies will pave the way for our cities to remain the vibrant socioeconomic hubs that they have become. 

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