On April 19th, the Annual Regional Assembly of the Regional Planning Association (RPA) of New York looked some what different. In the audience were representatives from 10 cities and World Bank staff. RPA was launching the 4th Regional Plan for the New York region, and other cities were there to listen, learn and bring their own experience to the table. Why metropolitan planning and why New York? What brought this group together and how does peer-to-peer learning bring a new dimension to the process of learning? How does it influence better outcomes and a rich iterative process of evidenced based learning? Let’s start at the very beginning.
If you could have just one wish, would you choose to solve climate change or energy poverty?
Resolving these two calamities is fundamental to the wellbeing of the planet and people. Climate change is caused mainly by the consumption of energy and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. Energy poverty is the lack of access to modern energy services. Helping 1.3 billion people access electricity and 2.6 billion people to have clean cooking facilities will greatly increase the world’s energy consumption and resulting GHG emissions. Spending money to mitigate climate change uses valuable resources that could more directly benefit the poor who have so little energy and such unhealthy cooking facilities. How do we address both energy poverty and climate change? This is as much an ethical dilemma as a technological challenge.
New fracking practices have increased the availability and decreased the cost of natural gas. This is having an enormous impact on energy systems around the world. There are numerous potential applications for natural gas including, but not limited to, use for transportation fuel, residential use, and electricity generation. Since the economic potential of exploiting this resource is so large it is likely that Canada, along with the US, will continue to ‘frack it all’ and reap the economic benefits on the global market. Other countries like China are joining in as well.
The largest increase in use of natural gas is for electricity generation. Natural gas fired power plants are appealing for many reasons. They can supply reliable base-load as well as peaking power. Also, they can be planned and built in less time than say, nuclear power stations, and for lower capital cost. Since fuel is available and cheap, natural gas power plants will continue to be built, and existing plants will continue to operate.
A Bus Rapid Transit – BRT – system is coming to Washington, DC in the spring of 2014. The proposed corridor will connect Crystal City in Arlington with the Potomac Yard in Alexandria.
This is good news for DC residents, who are currently dealing with the worst traffic in the country. DC commuters lose an average of 67 hours per year because of congestion, resulting in an additional 32 gallons per year per commuter of gasoline wasted.
BRT systems address traffic problems by creating dedicated lanes for buses. As shown in the above photo of Delhi, cars are physically restricted from bus lanes. This allows buses to travel faster than cars, making them a more attractive transport option for commuters and reducing car usage. Basically, a BRT is an aboveground subway, except that it costs 1/10th the price.
Let’s talk recycling: Not plastic and paper, but power…
These days, by far, the majority of electricity used in high-income countries comes from thermal power plants; these operate by heating water into steam that then spins a turbine. Thermal power plants, however, typically only use 33% to 48% of the total heat they produce. The rest just gets released into water or air. It’s a shame; if only there was a way to recycle all that ‘low-grade’ heat.
Today, 37% of the energy demand in OECD countries is for heating of buildings; only about 21% of energy demand is for electricity. We use much more energy for heating and cooling than we do for electricity. The low-grade heat that gets wasted by most power plants is still hot enough to be used for heating (and cooling) and water heating in buildings.
Why do we use so little of the heat we produce? That’s like buying a tub of fried chicken just to eat the skins!
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… Recover. As the population in large cities worldwide grows, waste management becomes an even bigger challenge. Recycling programs can divert large amounts of materials from landfills but some garbage still needs to be disposed of in landfills or Energy From Waste (EFW) sites. EFW facilities are capable of recovering energy from garbage that would otherwise be unused in landfills.
EFW and landfill gas capture systems operate on similar principles: produce steam to turn a turbine which generates electricity. The difference is the fuel used to produce the steam. Landfill gas based electricity generation relies on methane from the decomposition of organic material, while EFW facilities combust the solid waste. Both are good options as they prevent methane gas from escaping into the atmosphere. Methane has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide. Both options sound good, so which is better? The better question is: ‘How much land and money do you have’?
A helpful way for young math students to grasp the concept of exponential growth is to look at water lilies growing on a pond. They grow exponentially and double in area each day. If they will fully cover the pond by the 30th day, on what day is the lake half covered? The twenty-ninth day.
This year I had the honor of teaching 4th year energy systems students who will graduate later this month (their blogs on energy issues will be presented on this site over the summer). These graduates are particularly essential. During their careers they will be part of the world’s largest ever city-building spree. Their task will be to again double the world’s cities.
For bees, bigger hives are better.
Last week researchers at the University of Arizona published their findings: bees of bigger hives have more information and forage better. With improved communications, bees from the bigger hives sent new foragers to known resources up to four hours earlier than bees from smaller hives.1
This better communications also seems to work in bigger cities. Geoffrey West and the Santé Fe Institute provide impressive modeling on the scaling of cities. Double the size of a city and you get 1.15 times the growth of economy, patents and innovation. And as long as you can keep congestion and pollution in check, you can get this economic growth at only 0.85 times the cost of additional infrastructure. In other words, larger cities have a disproportionate impact on a country’s communications, and therefore a bigger impact on economy and culture.
This post was originally written for the Collective Solutions 2025 blog, a forward-looking study and collaboration platform to explore how the World Bank and similar multilateral institutions can best support developing countries to meet long-term sustainable development challenges in a post-2025 world. Read more about the study and join the collaboration site here.
I don’t particularly like cities. I’m a country boy. But I have lived in cities for the last 35 years; 10 in Bangkok, 15 in Manila, and 10 in Washington, DC (though DC might be called a town if it were in India or China). In the 1990s, I led work on environmental investments in east and south Asian cities. Most of the cities I worked in were severely “under-infrastructured and under-serviced,” and because many of them are built on coastal zones, this was particularly pronounced when it came to low-lying slums, drainage and sanitation. The heaviest price tag was often for drainage and flood control. During those years, I often wondered if and how the city and country leaders would ever catch up on infrastructure needs with the growing urban populations. Many have done well—while others are in worse shape now because they haven’t been able to meet the human tide.
On the eve of Earth Hour, taking place this Saturday 23 March, WWF this week announced the City of Vancouver in Canada as its Global Earth Hour City Challenge Capital 2013 at an award ceremony in Malmö, Sweden. The Earth Hour City Challenge is an initiative that takes Earth Hour beyond the symbolic gesture of switching off lights for one hour, encouraging concrete action on the ground to combat climate change.
The City Challenge is designed to identify and reward cities that are prepared to become leaders in the global transformation towards a climate-friendly, one planet economy. Working in collaboration with the leading association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, WWF worked across six countries (Canada, India, Italy, Norway, Sweden and USA), from which a total of 76 cities registered for the City Challenge.