We speak to Barny Evans, author of a report by our UK environmental team, Powering Ahead – Fast Track to an All-Electric City, which argues the case for electrifying cities to make urban life cleaner, quieter and better for everyone. The report focuses on London, suggesting that it would be realistic for the UK capital to become all-electric for power, heating and travel by 2035.  

Implications of Total Electrification for Buildings and Property in our Cities Worldwide

Barny Evans discusses the implications of total electrification for buildings and property in our cities worldwide.

In your report, which was written three years ago, you made the case that London, or any other leading city, should commit to becoming all-electric by 2035 to reduce CO2 emissions, improve air quality, reduce noise and continue to compete against the world’s leading cities, attracting jobs, growth and investment. What was your evidence for that?

According to our research at the time, 4,250 premature deaths in London each year were directly attributed to breathing bad air and one in four Londoners had seriously considered moving out of the city because of its noise and poor air quality. Mercer’s Quality of Life survey ranked London at 38, way behind cities such as Vienna and Zurich, and that ranking hasn’t improved since. We worked out that if electricity could power all of London’s transport needs and replace gas for heating and cooling, we could reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions (NO2), which harm our lungs, by 37 per cent.  In addition it would reduce CO2 emissions by two-thirds.

2035 was an ambitious target date – it’s less than twenty years away! Is there any chance of London achieving it? Are there any signs of your findings being vindicated?

We argued at the time that it’s what people want – in our survey we found that Londoners were generally in favour of the city becoming fossil-free within the next 20 years, supported an electric car-hire scheme, and reducing energy bills was considered a priority. So the will is there.

And even though only small numbers of all-electric cars are sold today, they will become more affordable and governments are now setting their own targets for full car electrification. In 2017 the UK government announced that all cars sold will be electrified by 2040, and France announced that it intends to have ended sales of petrol and diesel for cars, also by 2040, which is only 5 years after our target date. Volvo has stated it will only sell hybrid and electric cars from 2019 – in one years’ time. I think in vehicles the transformation will happen quicker than expected.

In terms of replacing gas consumption in buildings with electricity, it is now becoming obvious that heat pumps have a much lower carbon intensity than gas as well as air quality benefits. It is increasingly becoming standard for new developments to be all-electric and in some cases in London designs have been changed to electric at the request of the planning authority.

Finally, since the paper was written, energy storage and smart energy management in buildings have become mainstream and that will only accelerate this revolution. 

concept of an all electric city

Planning and Designing Projects to Support the All-Electric Initiative

For our colleagues working in Property & Buildings, what are the implications of electrifying cities for our work on projects? What do we need to be thinking about when planning and designing projects and how can we support the ambition to go all-electric?

Our buildings services engineers are already familiar with many of the issues and indeed are leaders on them, so it’s a case of sharing our knowledge with our clients and helping them to make the long-term investment choices. So, for example, the natural solution for heating might be a gas boiler today, but what if we install an electric system? There are considerable incentives, as we recently described in a new white paper, Delivering Cleaner Air, Carbon Savings and Lower Costs for Property Owners with Heat Pumps. It demonstrates, through auditing and modelling of buildings across Europe, Asia, Canada and the USA, that using heat pumps rather than gas boilers and traditional air conditioning chillers can cut commercial building ventilation costs by a quarter as well as contributing to the reduction of NO2 emissions.

If you are working with a big blue chip company your client will have to report on the property’s annual emissions. Electric buildings are reporting lower carbon every year as electricity production itself becomes more efficient and lower carbon. If you install a gas boiler or a CHP engine that will last, say, 20 years, this will look like a bad decision in 10 or 15 years’ time (arguably even now), when your client will have to report the much higher emissions. For residential developments, particularly in the case of new homes, people in cities are increasingly complaining about their homes overheating in summer. Electricity is the only realistic solution for future cooling systems. And if we want fresh air, a switch to electric in our cities will mean we can open our windows as streets will be quieter, as well as cooler with less heat generated from building services and vehicles. We explore this further in another report produced in 2015, Overheating in Homes.

 

Another consideration is how to manage the demand for energy. In the future your building will need electric car charging points. That’s going to increase the demand, so you need to plan a building that can cope efficiently with future requirements. You’ll have to think about what equipment you’re going to need to provide the capacity, how energy will be stored and the introduction of smart energy systems.

 

Then there’s the matter of how electrification will impact on how we plan and lay out our developments. If the streets become quieter and cleaner we may be able to put housing in places that are currently undesirable as too noisy and polluted. It will be possible to have more open spaces and pavement cafes than we have today. And systems such as car charging will have to be accommodated in plans for new developments.  (See our paper on Autonomous Vehicles)

engineering all electric cities

The research and recommendations that you and your colleagues make in these reports is primarily aimed at UK clients, but presumably it is also applicable in any part of the world? Do you have plans for further publications?

Absolutely! A key area we are working on now is how we generate, store and use energy. WSP as a whole is involved in all aspects of the energy generation, use and storage. In addition to our core building engineering services, power stations, renewable technologies and smart grids are just a few other areas of energy-related expertise we deliver. Across the globe, urbanisation and climate change are putting our cities under enormous pressure in terms of quality of life. We believe that these reports are unique in spelling out the situation and recommending solutions, and I don’t think any of our competitors have captured fully the issues and implications for the future with such clear vision. It’s a massive differentiator for us.

If you would like to download the reports mentioned in this article:

Delivering Cleaner Air, Carbon Savings and Lower Costs for Property Owners with Heat Pumps

Powering Ahead – Fast Track to an All-Electric City

Overheating in Homes