Arc Universities

Cranfield University’s Director of Energy and Power, Professor Phil Hart, explains why creating the right energy infrastructure is essential to sustainable urban development of the Arc.

“Nobody in good conscience can call the energy sector a boring place to work at the moment. As soon as you buy-in to human driven climate change you quickly discover that energy is at the heart of all of the bad stuff. Essentially every activity we do has an energy requirement, and if the vector of that energy is anything but 100% renewable then the activity will likely, overall, do climate harm. That’s quite a gloomy way to start off huh?…

The transition away from carbon based fuels to renewables has been a great success story of the last few decades. The pace of roll-out and technology development has been truly impressive, especially in the UK. We now find ourselves routinely at about 200-250gCO2/kWh for grid based electricity, about a quarter of 1970 levels, mostly due to the almost complete removal of coal from our power sector. When the wind blows and sun shines just right as happened recently we can with our current installed capacity of renewables see days when the number goes below 40g. That’s a little more positive!

The UK Government has identified the Oxford-Cambridge Arc as “key to the UK’s national prosperity, international competitiveness, and ability to meet the challenges and opportunities we will face as a country over the next century…”. It is expected as a result that the region will grow by about a million homes over the period up until 2050, attracting high technology industry, creating job growth and prosperity. Can we do this sustainably?

The infrastructure needed to support the projected growth is substantial in terms of energy, transport, urban development and environmental sustainability. It is relatively easy to visualize a decimated urban landscape, where lack of foresight results in concrete vistas in every direction, travel nightmares and GHG emitting industry littering the area. It is less easy to conceive of a region of increased natural beauty, widespread green spaces, energy efficient and clean infrastructures, and efficient, non-polluting, safe transport systems across the region. 

This latter scenario may feel like an unobtainable nirvana spoken of by idealists, given the likely scale of the developments. However, if we think big and think quickly, I believe the beneficial development of the arc is entirely possible, and here I’m thinking beneficial to the environment, to the local population and to the country. The big thinking needed has to cross the traditional boundaries of professional disciplines if we’re to achieve that goal though. Energy can no longer be the singular domain of the energy professional, it has to link into the application cases for which energy is the precursor. Energy must be thought of as part of a system centralized on the consumer, be that an individual or an industrial complex, across the region. We need to stand the power production facility centred thinking on its head and embed ourselves within the urban planning debate, recognizing energy as a facilitator. 

The Arc has the time limited opportunity to gather planners, policy makers, researchers, technology providers and business together to create and define a set of principles on which the Arc should/will be developed. This should include long term policy incentives and novel planning processes and rules for all infrastructure systems (including energy of course) built on concepts for local and regional development that enhance the Arc outcomes. If we wait too long, and fall into the free-for-all or localized approach, we’ll not only miss the opportunity for regional level enhancements, we’ll also create inefficiencies, social issues and environmental negatives that will make the Arc a less compelling place to live, work and travel within, and thus damage the potential of the economic powerhouse that the Arc should be.

Energy is essential to the sustainability debate, but without considering it in the social context of urban development within the Arc we would miss our goals and do ourselves a huge disservice. Let’s do a quick thought experiment and consider a case where planners conceive of a high technology park surrounded by enough of the right type of housing to support the necessary workers, all within easy walking or cycling distance. Place this next to a renewable energy park, able to supply enough power to feed the technology complex and most/all of the houses. Install renewable heating systems in each house and solar panels on every roof, each house having been required to have an adequate south facing roof space and basic level of battery storage. Ensure each industrial facility is oriented with south facing roofs and is required to have solar panels across its entire roof area. Build heat networks to pull waste heat from work areas to residential areas. Install a local hydrogen production facility capable of powering all local transport within the park and of storing excess renewable energy for times when power production is low. Ensure facilities such as health, wellbeing and outdoor recreational centres are all within the same easy walking distance. Add in social venues and entertainment in the same radius and by doing so make it unnecessary and purely optional to leave that park region on a day to day basis for all basic necessities.

With these models of development, energy infrastructure becomes radically different to an unconstrained traditional development. Transport systems become dominated by lower volume local considerations, personal use of cars becomes unnecessary for commuting or most essential needs, external power requirements overall are dramatically reduced, power distribution systems become smaller, less costly and more flexible, and office and household utility expenses are much reduced. If planned correctly, these areas are more energy efficient, more sustainable and importantly have the potential to become nicer, more enjoyable, more convenient places to live. They become a Campus+ environment, or a so called 15 minute city.

Now, there are some challenges with our thought experiment and it is only one of many options we could conceive of, but the technology solutions exist to make it a reality if we choose to do so. Some solutions need improvements in efficiency, some become viable only at scale, some need demonstration at scale to give confidence, but most are on the shelf ready to go. Some solutions can be ready when needed, if business can be confident that they have a client ready to buy if they invest R&D money in their development.

So, the Arc is uniquely placed to consider solutions like our thought experiment above, or for that matter other more radical or experimental solutions. There are areas of the Arc region that have little existing infrastructure to ‘get in the way’, where radical systems thinking, policy, planning processes and deployments can be applied. If we do sufficient free thinking up-front, with sufficiently diverse perspectives from knowledgeable professionals thinking at a systems level, the Arc could become a demonstrator of how well sustainable urban and infrastructure development can be accomplished, and just how little traditional energy infrastructure is needed.”

Professor Phil Hart is Director of Energy and Power at Cranfield University. Working extensively in the offshore sector in renewables and in oil and gas, Phil has built a diverse portfolio of international expertise in marine energy systems and subsea engineering, developing intellectual property and technologies from fundamental research through to concept and then full commercialisation. He is a recognised industry leader in wave energy conversion technologies in the US and has advised the US Department of Energy repeatedly on innovation strategies for this technology.

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