August 2011 Archives

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The internet, distributed renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy management are ready to coalesce: the impact on cities and our lives will be profound. The US-China Green Energy Conference (sponsored by the US-China Green Energy Council) held Friday in the Silicon Valley took a deep bi-national dive into what smart grids are and what they will mean for so-called smart cities, their wired citizenry and the future of global carbon emissions.

Smart grid specifics are finally starting to emerge from the marketing haze. They will rely heavily on smart buildings, and are a critical solution in making renewable energy more scalable through more efficient energy transmission systems. Cities like Dubuque, Iowa are working with 1,000 residents to test smart grid applications and have reportedly lowered their water use by 6% in early trials with IBM.

Elsewhere, China is testing a four-square kilometer smart grid pilot area in its national urban eco showcase, Tianjin Eco-City. The smart grid includes a 30kw PV solar microgrid on the roof of the Tianjin "Eco-City Business Hall," where residents will be able to charge their electric vehicles while they view virtual reality demonstrations of how the smart grid works, including its "self-healing" capabilities within the Eco-City's network.

In terms of renewable energy, smart grids will be a killer app. Right now, when the wind completely dies in larger areas of wind power generation, such as the West Texas plains, the transmission system supplying electricity to cities, including Austin and Dallas, suffers a "mad scramble," according to Liang Min, of the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In fact, according to Chuck Wells from OSISoft, such power hiccups are currently so disruptive, that 45% more fossil fuel is needed to back up regional energy grids having large-scale wind and solar generation versus regional grids that rely only on fossil fuels.

On the home or business side, people are responsible for about 30% of a typical building's energy system performance, said John Skinner, Managing Director of Intel's Open Energy initiative. The more reliable information people have, the more likely they can make smart decisions about energy use, and the more likely they can pay less for energy than they do with analog meters (the ones with the wheels turning inside them).

Energy transactions will become more transparent through next-generation smart grid transaction languages, such as TeMIX which was presented to the US-China energy conference by Edward Cazalet, CEO of TeMIX. Cazalet's presentation reminded me of how the internet was optimized when TCP/ IP, the unifying data transfer protocols behind the web, were created. The capability for energy systems to use a unified language around energy use and transactions will be critical. This language will allow governments, businesses and residents to better manage their energy consumption. Currently, energy costs can  vary tremendously based on factors including climate, usage and equipment, costing as much as five times or more during peak hours. Few people outside of large businesses realize they can cut energy costs dramatically by changing their behavior, which can be as straightforward as running energy guzzling appliances during off-peak hours.

None of this means that smart meters are a panacea. In cities throughout California, smart meters have been rolled out clumsily by the utility Pacific Gas and Electric. After four years of replacing residential and business analog meters with wireless smart meters, a vocal and well-organized group of citizens are objecting to the continuous signals they transmit. Others object based on invasion of privacy or fear the new meters would overcharge them. PG&E has finally gotten around to a public education program extolling the benefits of smart meters, which they say are mandatory for their customers. Besides the heavy handedness, even with the new PR campaign, PG&E has not made the case for compelling consumer benefits.

Consolidated Edison of New York City, on the other hand has managed their smart meter pilot program more effectively. Con Ed ran an extensive public education program and transparent opt-out option for those that did not want smart meters (2% did not want them) on their home or business for their New York City pilot program. The utility offered participants in its pilot program rebates of $25-50. Six rate structures with hourly rate changes and a web-based consumer dashboard explained and demonstrated different rates, according to EPRI's Liang Min.

Many companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, General Electric and Google are eyeing the nascent smart grid for its potential not just to make cities more eco-efficient, but for also for lucrative smart-grid revenue streams as they penetrate the last major untapped digital pathway into our lives.

"We are cooperating with many high tech companies," Kai Xie, General Manager of the US Office of the China State Grid told the US-China Energy Conference. "We have also developed some in-house products for our customers, including a dashboard (with Intel) as part of a two-way communication combined smart meter and consumer portal. "

Our information, communications, photographs, entertainment and medical industries are all now increasingly digital, and soon our energy will be digitized, too. Let's hope the planet and our cities will benefit from a smooth and well thought out transformation.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.  

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"Ecocity" is a popular designation for dozens of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal, Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations--all trying to plan how the city can be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches and economic need: they'll go from harboring more than half of the planet's people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050. The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above); Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland in 2010.

A host of other cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan ("Caofeidian International Eco-city"are modeled as eco-cities, while India is also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai transportation and industrial corridor. Japan, which has been helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or "eco towns."

The term "ecocity" was first used by Richard Register in 1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities, called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders' Register, Executive Director Kirstin Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS--Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal--will also participate. These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system "conditions" or categories. Cities will eventually be analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have an integral relationship to the city's bioregions (bioregional mapping will become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·         Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access to close-by employment options.

·         Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within buildings, the city's air shed, and the atmosphere.

·         Healthy Soil: Soils meet their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·         Clean and Safe Water: Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city's water sources, waterways and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·         Responsible Resources/ Materials: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated, managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·         Clean and Renewable Energy: The city's energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·         Healthy and Accessible Food: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·         Healthy Biodiversity: The city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·         Earth's Carrying Capacity: The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the Earth's bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting regional ecological integrity.

·         Ecological Integrity: The city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·         Healthy Culture: The city facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social learning.

·         Community Capacity Building: The city supports full and equitable community participation in decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·         Healthy and Equitable Economy: An economy favoring economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options - the foundation for "green jobs".

·         Lifelong Education: All residents have access to lifelong education including access to information about the city's history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social institutions.

·         Well Being--Quality of Life: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth's Carrying Capacity). These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True, international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US Green Building Council's LEED, and the BREEAM standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a city sustainable. With the cooperation of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future of more extreme risk--which equals opportunity.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.   


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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