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Cities increasingly looking at ‘district’ approaches to energy use

Following the Paris climate talks, the Habitat III process this month turns its focus to renewables and efficiency.

An infrared "thermovision" image shows temperature differentials — and heating and cooling inefficiencies — in Zagreb, Croatia. (Ivan Smuk/Shutterstock)

In the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, the landmark climate accord that emerged from last month’s COP 21 summit, the global conversation on this issue has turned to implementation.

Curbing the rise in carbon emissions can take many forms, but in Paris, mayors and local leaders argued that cities are poised to take the lead. For example, the building sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of annual emissions in the United States and United Kingdom, and around half globally. In an increasingly urban world, the majority of buildings are concentrated in cities, where policies governing energy efficiency can potentially have huge impacts on emissions.

[See: New alliance seeks to tap major climate potential of building sector]

That message underscores the first Habitat IIIthematic meeting” of 2016, which will focus on sustainable energy and cities. Since October, other thematic meetings in this series have discussed issues such as civic participation, metropolitan areas and intermediate cities.

Slated for 20 January in Abu Dhabi, the meeting on renewable energy will coincide with Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the world’s largest annual gathering on clean energy and water. The capital of the United Arab Emirates has turned heads in recent years with its planned carbon-neutral sister city, Masdar, which has been hyped and criticized in equal measure as a green masquerade for heavily polluting Abu Dhabi.

In the run-up to the Abu Dhabi meeting, an online discussion is also taking place through 24 January allowing contributors to debate this and related issues. Another in a series of U. N.-sponsored Urban Dialogues, the moderators this time around are asking, “Which renewable energy technologies are most suitable to integrate into existing urban infrastructures in established cities, and which are more appropriate for expanding cities in areas that are rapidly urbanizing?”

[See: Six great ideas of the Habitat III Urban Dialogues]

For the building sector, solutions generally cover the highly specialized, befitting the technical world of engineers and architects. The latest latest research from the International Energy Agency’s Energy in Buildings and Communities Programme, for example, covers super-insulating materials, micro-generation and adaptive thermal comfort.

But it also recognizes that change at the urban scale requires thinking bigger than mere nuts and bolts. “The required transition needs to refocus away from optimisation of building components via single buildings to optimised solutions for whole neighbourhoods and communities,” the report states.

That’s where district energy systems come in.

Economies of scale

The clank of boilers is a telltale winter soundtrack in many older cities in more temperate zones, where many buildings tend to have their own own heating and cooling system. But in downtowns and dense neighborhoods, smart decisions made decades ago and current retrofitting strategies are generating warm and cool air in a central location, then piping this to a connected network of buildings.

“Dubai is on track to meet 40 percent of its cooling needs with a district approach by 2030 — saving half on the standard energy consumption for air conditioning.”

This economy-of-scale approach saves energy and cost. After all, one large heating and cooling system is typically cheaper than hundreds of smaller individual ones.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been studying several models for implementing district energy systems, in collaboration with the Copenhagen Centre on Energy Efficiency, UN-Habitat and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability. In a recent publication, the agencies identified 45 “champion cities” on this issue.

[See: Cities, regions to form five-year vision on climate action]

Most of these are in North America and Europe, with a few sprinkled through Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Latin America appears to be lagging behind on this issue.

A few are surprise innovators. For instance, Port Louis, Mauritius, is developing the first seawater-based district cooling system in Africa. China and Eastern Europe historically have high shares of district heating and now are working to modernize old systems to boost efficiency.

Even legacy networks in the United States and Europe are now transitioning to renewable energy sources at the district scale. And Dubai is on track to meet 40 percent of its cooling needs with a district approach by 2030 — saving half on the standard energy consumption for air conditioning, the Gulf city’s major energy hog.

“Sustainable energy for cities could mean that socio-economic and environmental burdens such as blackouts, resource price shocks, energy poverty and air pollution are confined to the past,” the report states. “Huge opportunities to lift these burdens exist in cities’ heating and cooling sectors, which can account for up to half of cities’ energy consumption.”

With a plethora of mixed public and public-private models, the UNEP report offers options for nearly every regulatory situation in which a municipal government or utility might find itself.

Cities ‘major drivers’

These are certainly issue that figure centrally in the run-up to Habitat III, the 20-year global urbanization conference that will take place in October. That process has already resulted in an official technical “issue paper” on urban infrastructure and basic services, including energy. The document hints at the value of a system rather than individualized approach.

“Assets must not be confused as being only the structures and facilities of infrastructure,” it states. “Assets are systems of infrastructure, which include the physical structures as well as the internal linkages between these physical structures.”

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

Of course, well-functioning markets are the fiscal force that will ultimately facilitate any energy-efficiency plan. In the International Energy Agency’s 2015 market report, the agency explicitly acknowledges that cities’ appetite for sustainability can create market opportunities.

“Cities and regions are major drivers of energy efficiency markets, using their urban planning powers mainly in the transport and buildings sectors,” the report states. The Paris-based agency cites its host city for having saved 130 gigawatt-hours since 2008 through municipal actions, which simultaneously generated EUR 640 million (nearly USD 700 million) in investment and created 1,300 local jobs.

With the ink barely dry on the Paris Agreement and the international community now turning its attention toward Habitat III, the time is ripe for cities to determine exactly what they can offer — and what they need from national governments — to get the job done.

As with all thematic meetings, this month’s discussions in Abu Dhabi will be aimed at resulting in a negotiated declaration that will provide formal input to the Habitat III process. For the full list of remaining thematic and regional meetings this year, see here for Citiscope’s calendar.

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