Research by climate scientists has shown that CO2 levels and global temperatures are climbing faster than previously projected, and cities around the world increasingly are taking action, pursuing strategies to both reduce the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions they create and to increase the supply of renewable energy they consume.
As U.S. cities prepare their own pathways to becoming low-carbon communities, they will need to anticipate big shifts in energy generation and distribution, as well as how people move about the city and the way in which new structures are built.
The move to deploy internet-of-things (IoT) technologies to better monitor, track and optimize the performance of energy use, transportation systems and buildings will be crucial, as will new ways of thinking about infrastructure, transportation and building design.
A smarter grid
Our energy grid is designed to go one direction – out. It is big, complex and almost always reliable. Optimizing its climate performance means managing its complexity and making room for innovation, allowing communities to employ localized decarbonization strategies. The grid needs to be smarter.
Top-down vs bottom-up
For most of the United States, the national grid has been restructured to separate power generation (generation companies, or gencos) and transmission (transmission system operators, or TSOs). Generally, our national grid is a top-down and one direction operation. A bi-directional grid that incorporates local renewable energy strategies – that is, a grid that allows customers to feed excess power back into the grid, to be distributed to customers that need it – can be greener and more resilient by allowing innovative power generation and sharing at the local level. Smarter community-scale solutions can reduce GHG and improve resilience.
Local community solutions and innovation
Electricity travels along regional high-tension power lines that connect to community-scale substations. These regulate the voltage for local power lines that again get a voltage adjustment on the pole-mounted transformers you see in your neighborhood. The power then comes off the local system through your meter. What if you could manage your power use and supply behind the meter, taking little or no energy from the grid? Or if you could even push power back into the grid, perhaps offering the system surplus power generated by rooftop solar panels?
And what if enough customers served by the community-scaled substation could do the same, avoiding the need to draw energy from the regional grid? A local system like this is called a microgrid. It has a reliable demand and supply of energy.
Microgrids and bi-directional systems can be connected to the regional grid as a backup or even a supplemental source of power. This type of diversified approach to electric power generation and distribution can add redundancy and modularity to the grid, making it more resilient to weather or other disruptions. It is also more complex, requiring a new approach to managing the grid in partnership with local communities and customers.
Blockchain ledgers and managing complexity
Blockchain is a method of digitally tracking complex sets of transactions. It can result in a ledger recording energy use and supply for partners and customers within a microgrid. Blockchains are secure because everyone has an up-to-date version of their ledger. This approach to managing district-scale energy development merges microgrid and blockchain technologies and frees communities to pursue climate friendly solutions.
The smarter car
What we will be driving by 2025 will reflect the convergence of energy, technology and how we define transportation services . Auto manufacturers have ramped up research and development and are bringing the first generation of smart electric vehicles (EVs) to the marketplace; technology companies are exploring how to integrate their products into cars; and carsharing platforms are exploring a redefinition of personal transit.
A shift in transportation technologies and fuels
Cities are partnering with energy companies, universities and auto manufacturers to modernize the fleet and its supporting energy infrastructure. The transition from the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy will be key to meeting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, 89% of Houston’s on-road emissions are from household vehicles. The city’s Climate Action Plan emphasizes a transition in technologies and fuels for cars and small trucks in order to meet an overall target of reducing GHG emissions to 70% below 2014 levels by 2050. The gap in emissions performance is intended to be offset with additional renewable energy supplies (see graphic).
Houston Climate Action Plan On-Road Transportation Targets
The city of Houston and its partners are getting proactive. They have formed a collaborative approach to develop a regional electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure to support growing demand and to meet environmental goals. EVolve Houston is a partnership between the city, CenterPoint Energy, the University of Houston, and others, with a goal that electric vehicles will comprise 30% of the fleet by 2030.
Smart cities will provide systems of interactive devices connecting the grid, buildings and cars. Cars will become smarter, automated and up to eight times more fuel efficient. Imagine riding home in a car that you own or share as a transportation service, to a building that is expecting you.
More energy efficient intelligent buildings
Globally, buildings are responsible for 40% of GHG emissions. Building stock will increase by 60% by 2040 but will need to use 40% less energy to meet global targets for reducing GHG emissions . This will require innovation in building design, high expectations for energy performance and buildings that learn from the people who inhabit them.
Passive strategies are the smartest
My students in the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design are learning to design buildings that respond to and improve their natural and built environments. They are learning that the smartest buildings are the ones designed to respond to the sun and prevailing breezes. They are starting with strong, passive strategies and augment them with active design and technology solutions.
Codes and building performance
Today’s students will be innovators, because building and energy codes are going to require them to be. In the U.S., states are using various versions of the International Building Code (IBC) and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). This code system is reducing energy use in buildings by 30% every six years. By 2030, the codes will require new buildings to be net zero energy by reducing energy demand, offsetting the remaining energy demand with onsite renewable sources and incorporating energy from the grid generated by renewable sources. Starting in 2018, the IBC and IECC has allowed two tracks: a traditional prescriptive track that spells out the performance of building components and a performance-based track that measures design innovation with energy model simulations. Existing buildings undergoing deep retrofits using the new codes can also greatly improve their energy performance and comfort.
Buildings that learn from us
The Internet of Things will connect our workplaces, homes, the grid, and cars in ways allowing them to anticipate our energy use and reward good behavior, that is, behaviors that reduce energy use. There are already IoT products and services available that early adopters are purchasing to improve thermal comfort, energy efficiency, security and environmental (fire, flooding and air quality) monitoring. What if you could program these smart services just by living in your home? What if your workplace and home learned from you?
In the near future, these internet-connected services will use a combination of sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate and improve your user experience. In addition, they will reward good behavior, which reduces peak energy use and conserves resources, with lower energy costs.
Smart Low-Carbon Cities – Big Changes Ahead
There are big changes ahead for cities striving to reduce their climate impact. Leaders in these cities need to think about how and where the city should grow, about an equitable quality of life and about the ways technology can improve the social and environmental performance of cities. The IoT is becoming a key mode of information sharing and optimization, which can make cities safer and more comfortable while reducing their environmental impact. We also must remember that a spatially compact, social, stimulating and walkable city is a naturally low-carbon city. Adding smart technologies can make cities even better.
, FAIA, FAICP, Ph.D
joined the Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture and Design to establish the Center for Sustainability and Resilience (CeSAR). He teaches the ARCH 5500–QUAD ZERO Studio (net zero energy, GHG, waste, and water) and the Environmental Analysis seminar. Dr. Race’s research focuses on development of low-carbon cities. He is the principal and founder of RACESTUDIO and is responsible for all aspects of project planning, design and delivery. Since founding RACESTUDIO in Berkeley, CA in 1994, his clients’ projects have received 33 design and planning awards including national awards from the American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, Environmental Protection Agency, and Society of College and University Planning. The Long-Range Development Plan for
UC Merced received a national 2012 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects Award
, and the Owings Award for Environmental Excellence, from the California Architectural Foundation in 2013. Most recently, the Downtown Estes Park Plan received a 2018 APA Colorado award for planning for resilience.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.