Wild snowstorms paralyzed electricity infrastructure in Texas, a state in the country with the world’s largest economy.
Just imagine what climate change fueled extreme weather will do to our cities as infrastructure and ICT systems become increasingly interconnected.
Many see high-tech “smart cities” as a climate solution, but just how smart are they?
This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Smart cities are held up as beacons of hope in meeting the climate crisis. This is because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paring back energy use and urban waste. But is it possible the high-tech complexity of smart cities actually leaves urban dwellers more exposed to future climate disaster? Smart cities’ dependence on the information and communications technology (ICT) systems that help generate these emission reductions may actually be opening up new climate vulnerabilities when we consider what happens if these systems fail. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of assuming that a reliance on increasingly high-tech solutions is our “get out of jail free” card for everything.
We need to think more about whether our increasing reliance on interconnected information-based technology includes adequate fails safes to protect against systematic collapse if cities are hit by outside stresses – including climate-induced shocks. A number of experts working in the field of urban climate adaptation believe this issue is not receiving adequate attention.
Considering that about 55 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and this figure is projected to rise to seven out of 10 people by 2050, we ignore this issue at our possible peril.
The definition of what actually makes a smart city is not clear cut. There is general agreement though that they share an ability to combine real time data and digital technology to improve people’s decisions on when to use energy and when to move around, while also contributing to more efficient long-term city planning. Sensors and people’s ubiquitous use of smartphones, for instance, encourage urban residents to use public transit during off-peak hours to avoid large crowds and to access energy and water services at different times of the day to lessen demand surges.
Smart emission reduction
Smart cities reduce carbon footprints by utilizing interconnected ICT systems to create greater efficiencies. These can come in the form of more energy efficient buildings and street lighting, better waste management, smart energy meters that allow consumers to tap cheaper off-peak power, and electrified public transport links that best conform with people flows. Largely absent from positive depictions of smart cities’ ability to reduce emissions though are considerations of how robust the ICT systems are that make them smart.
In his book published last year, “Apocalypse How”, former UK politician Oliver Letwin issues an arresting warning about whether we are adequately assessing the way our growing reliance on technological connectivity opens our societies to vulnerabilities. Letwin provides a detailed portrayal of how the physical and human infrastructure of UK society would break down quickly if there was a systematic failure of the internet and associated services, including banking and satellite-based communication and navigation. He predicts this would lead quickly to a large number of deaths (in his synopsis due to the failure of indoor heating) and, ultimately, a breakdown of law and order.
The title of Letwin’s book is a misnomer (possibly with a suggested nod by the publisher to the current popularity of dystopian literature and TV) as the ICT breakdown he posits –associated with internet-busting solar flares – is rectified in a few days. While Letwin does not address climate change, his book does provide a useful thought experiment in highlighting the way our fragile modern society is increasingly dependent on the ICT systems that connect us and our machines. Isn’t it possible that the increasingly extreme effects of climate change – such as floods, hurricanes and extended droughts – could, ironically, threaten the integrity of the smart city ICT networks designed to help mitigate global heating?
Enmeshed in the ICT era
Humanity’s increasing reliance on technology is by no means new. It began with the use of simple tools and fire, leading to gradually more sophisticated irrigation and animal husbandry. During the past few decades, the use technology has carved out a central part of our lives – accelerating rapidly with the invention of steam power (which, along with the myriad benefits of fossil fuel-powered modernity, began the current trajectory to the climate crisis we now face). The extent to which we now use technology-based communication and interconnectivity though is unprecedented. Today’s generation is deeply enmeshed in the ICT era, equally as it is within the Anthropocene era.
Richard Dawson, an urban climate expert based at the UK’s Newcastle University, warns of a “cascading failure” if single ICT components fail. Dawson says we need to upgrade our thinking about urban infrastructure connections beyond a traditional focus on electricity, road, rail and sewage systems. “The increasing reliance on data and ICT in urban planning is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It allows for incredible flexibility – to create new communication lines we don’t have to dig up a road. We could live without being able to talk across continents if telecommunications fail, but we would struggle if this breakdown led to a mass system failure.”
A loss of ICT interconnectivity has implications far beyond the failure of systems employed to create urban efficiencies and, therefore, reduce emissions. The rapid speed at which ICT systems operate could actually work against us if they fail, as the negative effects would be sharp and sudden. Dawson points out the loss of electronic banking could quickly lead to social problems. This would be particularly worrisome if this occurs as the result of a climate disaster when a ready access to personal finance is so important.
Strange conspiracy theories
The US Government found that many of the social problems following Hurricane Katrina’s destructive descent on New Orleans in 2005 arose from “information gaps”. While accounts of rioting and other lawlessness at the time were later described as exaggerated, numerous reports do indicate communication breakdowns did severely impact social cohesion. Professor Ayyoob Sharifi, from Japan’s Hiroshima University, warns the ICT systems that control smart cities are not just prone to disruption from uncontrolled disaster, but also from intentional human-created harm.
The curation of social media misinformation by individuals or organizations, including overseas governments, could overcome local officials’ attempts to prevent the outbreak of havoc when disaster strikes, said Sharifi, who studies urban climate measures. This could include the dissemination of purposefully incorrect information about where to take shelter during flooding. Purported attempts by the Russian Government to use social media to sway election results in the US and Europe shows that anonymous attempts to sway public perceptions can be effective.
The ability of strange conspiracy theories, especially if abetted by unscrupulous populist politicians such as former US President Donald Trump, to cut through the daily online traffic and garner widespread support shows that social media is not always the best medium to convey factual information. Social media, usually accessed by smart phones, is an important part of the two-way communication interface of smart cities, as it is with many forms of climate early warning systems.
How do we ensure then that the commendable work of climate proofing cities does not lead us down cul de sacs of urban planning where an overreliance on ICT connections actually increases the potential for climate disruption? One way is to take a holistic approach that incorporates different approaches to urban dynamics.
Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network – a global group of researchers and other policy, business and civil society innovators – is striving to make cities more sustainable and equitable by highlighting the human element in democratizing data and including underrepresented voices in city planning.
Local Governments for Sustainability, known as ICLEI, is another global network – comprising local and regional governments in over 100 countries – that advocates cities that weather rapid urbanization and climate change by combining sustainable and equitable solutions.
Nazmul Huq, ICLEI’s head of resilient development, says people need to be placed at the centre of all urban management – especially in developing countries, many of which are now entering intense urbanization. Rapid interconnectivity in the new urban hot spots of growth in India, China and Nigeria is creating advantage and potential disadvantage at a rapid pace.
“The emergence of ICT, especially mobile phones, represents a revolution for poorer people in developing countries as it provides them with greater control over their lives,” Huq said. “But at the same time, an overreliance on interconnected ICT urban networks also raises the possibility of devastating systematic collapse – including through rapid climate-induced disasters such as heat waves. This could disconnect people, while knocking out internet connections and electricity generation.”
Huq said the most important factor in making cities livable – whether they are smart or not – is to include all urban citizens, including disadvantaged groups, in the decisions that shape their urban spaces. “We must ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard to avoid injustice and unequal distribution of the benefits of city life,” he added.
The way megacities are emerging now in developing countries may well determine whether we are able to overcome the climate challenge – especially considering that 70 percent of greenhouse gases come from today’s cities. Under current trends, it seems likely the lives of those rich and poor will become increasingly urbanized and interconnected by smart city ICT systems.
The sheer enormity of the climate challenge means we need to consider all options, including seeking out technological solutions. We should, however, balance our desire to be smart and interconnected with urban planning that at least considers the fragility of our city systems and what happens when they don’t work. We must not allow our thirst for technology to overcome our human need to consider nature.
Banner image caption: City of London skyline by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).
Simon Pollock is an Australian-British writer and climate change communicator based in South Korea. Before leaving the Australian Government in 2016, he was a member of the startup team that launched Al Jazeera English Television from its Asia HQ in Kuala Lumpur. Simon’s interest in development and environmental issues stemmed from observation of how the two don’t always mix during six years in Beijing as a Kyodo News reporter.
GreenBiz came up with these six tips for deploying data-driven energy management to drive meaningful emission reductions through reducing building operating emissions at scale with data analytics. So here is a much down to earth way to a certain decarbonisation strategy.
Reducing building operating emissions at scale with data analytics
Nearly 40 percent of global CO2 emissions come from the built environment — with 28 percent resulting from buildings in operation. Whether your organization owns, operates or occupies a building, data-driven energy management is key to reducing its GHG footprint and Scope 1 and 2 emissions.
In the past, organizations have struggled to scale building operational energy improvement efforts for a variety of reasons. The most-cited reasons include organizational structures that fracture ownership of energy performance across disparate stakeholders, a lack of goal alignment and collaboration between landlords and occupiers, and the preponderance of legacy systems that make interoperability and data consolidation challenging.
According to United Nations projections, carbon emissions from buildings are expected to double by 2050 if action at scale doesn’t occur. With more companies pledging to decarbonize their business, and investors increasingly scrutinizing ESG data, scalable energy management will be a critical step in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Today, we share six tips for deploying data-driven energy management at scale to drive meaningful emission reductions from your business.
Collect meter-level energy consumption data where possible
Identifying GHG reduction opportunities should be a data-driven, systematic process. Start by examining building-level energy meter profiles and understanding how usage patterns relate to changing occupancy and weather conditions. Meters, which typically generate one datapoint every 15 to 30 minutes, as opposed to one datapoint every month or quarter on a utility bill, provide rich data to better inform your organization’s decarbonization strategy.
Tip: Leverage meter data, which provides real-time transparency of when and where energy is being used, to identify unexpected usage patterns and unlock higher-resolution benchmarking and analysis opportunities.
Benchmark the energy intensity of your building portfolio
Building-level energy management is powerful, but it never pays to operate in a vacuum. Understanding how a building performs compared to others provides context and can help your organization identify where to focus first. The approach to benchmarking depends on the type of buildings in your portfolio.
For example, typical portfolios of small to medium buildings (buildings of 4,000 to 20,000 square feet or so) often include many buildings dispersed across a geography (such as convenience stores, bank branches and fast-food stores), while large shopping centers, hospitals and universities manage larger, but fewer, centralized complex buildings.
Portfolios with larger commercial buildings can leverage third-party frameworks, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Energy Star and NABERS, which compare energy intensity against an industry benchmark.
For portfolios of small to medium buildings that are dispersed, external benchmarks are harder to find. In this case, Envizi recommends internal benchmarking using meter data to make meaningful performance comparisons. Advanced normalization techniques can be applied to identify the poorest performers in the portfolio, which helps to inform a highly targeted strategy for improving efficiency and reducing emissions.
Tip: Undertake energy benchmarking before making investment decisions — don’t make the mistake of focusing on areas where there are no material savings. Envizi’s software can combine meter data with other contextual data (floor area, weather, operating schedules, and production units) to enable performance comparisons on a normalized basis.
Tune operational and behavioral efficiency
Buildings can be complex, but not as complex as building operations: the interaction between a building, its operators and occupants, and flow-on effects to energy performance.
Building services such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), which often account for almost 30 percent of annual emissions, are subject to continuous change and are often responsible for considerable “energy drift” over time due to poor operational practices. For this reason, technology that proactively informs and educates building operators is necessary to support time-poor operations teams to maintain optimum performance.
Often, manual audits will not detect the inefficiencies, but Envizi’s software uses a combination of continuous equipment monitoring, building management systems data, equipment nameplate data, weather data and other metrics to provide transparency to HVAC system performance and uncover operational issues that are otherwise difficult to detect.
Consider plant and equipment upgrades
Investing in equipment to deliver emissions reductions is dependent on an organization’s scale, scope and asset type and may be relevant only to building owners.
The appetite for plant and equipment upgrades may depend on how long the asset owner intends to hold the asset, the age of the building and the age of the equipment. Envizi recommends that building owners and operators engage their engineering consultants and specialist contractors to determine the feasibility of plant and equipment upgrades.
Tip: Technology can assist in the pre- and post-analysis of reduction projects to measure effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). Envizi’s software uses the International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol to ensure calculations will withstand audit and validation.
Consider on-site and off-site renewables
After implementing solutions for operational, behavioral and system efficiencies, many organizations seek renewable energy as a proactive solution to get ahead on the decarbonization journey. Decisions on whether to procure on-site or off-site renewables are complex, and Envizi recommends coordinating with your organization’s engineering consultant or specialist contractor to assess its options.
Tip: Software platforms such as the one offered by Envizi can assist with monitoring the performance of solar assets, comparing the actual performance to promised performance and integrating the accounting of the renewable energy certificates to facilitate the most traceable reporting and auditing process.
Energy management is rarely the remit of one team, but rather involves multiple stakeholders across an organization. The success of any emissions-reduction effort will be affected by the organization’s ability to effectively engage a cross-collaborative stakeholder group.
Typically, organizations with a strong culture of governance and executive ownership of the energy agenda can make the most impactful positive change. Often, inspirational leaders can make the difference with robust internal communication, empowerment through clear roles and responsibilities, and incentives for employees to take ownership of the energy reduction goals.
The transition to a low-carbon economy will require organizations to drastically increase the energy efficiency of buildings in operation. The following data-driven tactics can help your organization identify and achieve meaningful emission reductions:
Collect meter data where possible to understand granular energy consumption.
Benchmark the energy performance of the buildings by size/cohort in your organization’s portfolio to identify poor performers.
Use technology to monitor how HVAC systems are configured, to detect energy waste and optimization opportunities.
Before implementing equipment retrofits, solar photovoltaics or energy projects, engage a specialist to understand your organization’s options, and use data to establish a baseline against which to measure improvements.
Nominate a senior executive to champion your organization’s emissions-reduction program. A single system of record for emissions and energy can help enable cross-functional collaboration.
If you’d like to learn more about using data and technology to streamline and accelerate decarbonization, read “Pathway to Low-Carbon Guide.”
Retail real estate needs Paris-Proof decarbonisation strategy, says Buildings Performance Institute Europe as reported by property funds world. It is understandable when, with the increasing industrialisation, buildings’ energy consumption already accounts for one-third and still counting of global CO2 emissions.
Retail real estate needs Paris-Proof decarbonisation strategy, says Buildings Performance Institute Europe
24 February 2021
BPIE – Buildings Performance Institute Europe – has released a new report highlighting that despite industry efforts to decarbonise building portfolios, retail real estate asset managers and owners lack a sector-specific trajectory towards achieving climate-neutrality.
The report marks the launch of Paris-Proof Retail Real Estate, an initiative that looks to develop a vision and strategy to support the European retail real estate sector reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.
The report highlights that the current rate of decarbonisation of retail buildings is not happening fast enough to meet climate goals. Extreme weather conditions, rapidly expanding floor area and growth in demand for energy consuming services exacerbate the issue. In 2019, the global buildings and construction sector accounted for 35 per cent of final energy use and 38 per cent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Delivering the vision of climate-neutrality requires thorough renovation and smart design of the whole building stock, including retail portfolios.
According to the report, existing low carbon transition and 1.5°C climate roadmaps are not yet fully adapted to the needs of the sector, and climate change issues are not yet fully integrated into mainstream asset management and investment decision-making processes, traditionally focused on the cyclical trends of property markets. Yet it is precisely at sector level where climate-related risks become more apparent. Interviews with ten retail property investment and management companies, which informed the report’s analysis, reveal that failure to put in place a decarbonisation strategy now could lead to value erosion and stranded assets in the years to come.
“In Europe, while GHG emissions targets are well defined for 2030 and 2050, these are not yet transposed into meaningful guidance for individual industry sectors,” says Zsolt Toth, Senior Project Manager at BPIE.
“If we are serious about decarbonising the full building stock by 2050, the retail real estate sector and policymakers need to have a common understanding of who needs to do what, and by when. The strategy should be measurable, sector-specific, and disaggregated from high-level political targets.”
Clemens Brenninkmeijer, Head of Sustainable Business Operations at Redevco, an urban real estate investment management company, agrees. “The need for deliberate actions and tangible results to significantly decrease emissions in the built environment is becoming more urgent for retail real estate managers every day. This report, funded through the Redevco Foundation, provides insight into where the retail real estate sector in particular stands, and what should be the next step.”
While this may seem evident, developing a forward-looking decarbonisation strategy for businesses amidst a changing policy landscape is not a simple exercise, says Joost Koomen, Secretary General of ECSP, the European Council of Shopping Places, representing retail and mixed use destinations and their communities.
“Aligning the broader long-term 2030 and 2050 goals with short to medium term investment decisions will be important, particularly in a rapidly changing industry that has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Koomen. “Market actors urgently need to understand how to plan for the longer term while also ensuring stability within the short to medium term.”
As BPIE’s analysis shows, most of the risks associated with climate change are expected to appear in the medium to long-term and thus are not captured by the relatively short-term models used in most current risk management practices. Data gaps, confusion of metrics and protocols, as well as the particular nature of carbon risks could give rise to a collective mis-assessment by real estate markets.
BPIE plans to launch a decarbonisation vision and strategy with the European retail real estate sector before the end of 2021. Owners and asset managers from the sector are welcome to participate in workshops and provide input in its development.
T_HQ DATA CENTERS‘ article on Looking to a circular economy by designing green data centers by Joe Devanesanexplaining how to meet the rising data demands of AI & IOT applications whilst helping us discover how an interconnected data centre ecosystem can reduce costs and mitigate risk.
19 February 2021
Can more sustainable data centers be designed that employ green energy and circular technology strategies?
Solving the massive energy consumption dilemma by data centers has been an ongoing challenge for the data industry. Data centers are being constructed and pressed into service at a rapid clip worldwide, but the significant carbon imprint of these projects are causing design teams to study how to minimize the environmental impact of the construction process and enable more green, yet still cost-efficient data center designs.
The astronomical levels of energy output required by data centers is raising concerns among green energy advocates, government administrators, and the data center industry itself. Notable service providers including technology giants with their own centers have started working with companies like CarbonCure, which makes a low-carbon “green” concrete material for the tile-up walls that frame data centers.
Cultivating a circular economy
Concrete’s durability and strength are ideal for industrial construction, but the production of cement requires the use of massive kilns, which require large amounts of energy, and the actual chemical process emits staggeringly high levels of carbon dioxide. CarbonCure’s method repurposes the CO2 emitted by large refineries and chemically mineralizes it during the concrete manufacturing process to make greener and stronger concrete.
CarbonCure’s method is a step towards cultivating a circular economy, where materials are part of an inverted logistics chain, tracking the source and the waste produced, and repurposing them so that they contribute back towards the sustainability of the project, while cutting down on the environmental footprint.
As solutions like CarbonCure’s prove their feasibility as well as the potential to optimize costs, data center customers, especially the bigger corporations that consume more energy, will begin feeling the pressures to adopt environmental practices and corporate social responsibility policies that are in-line with sustainability best practices available in their region.
To overcome the time-sensitive pitfalls that green energy solutions like solar and wind power encounter presently, Google created a “carbon-intelligent computing platform” that optimizes for green energy at its data centers by rescheduling workloads that are not time-sensitive, such as matching workloads to solar power during the day, and to wind energy in the evening when it is airier, for example.
But the intermittent use of renewable energy to overcome the significant carbon footprint associated with electricity, can be sidestepped altogether if more efficient energy storage means could be set up to generate and store power from green sources at data centers.
A new project in the US will showcase a potential solution from Tesla, the electric car company led by tech visionary Elon Musk. Data center technology company Switch will use new large-scale energy storage technology from Tesla to boost its use of solar energy for its mammoth data center campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. It is a promising project in pioneering a holistic integration of renewable power, green energy storage and Internet-scale data centers.
Smart Cities are set to gain further traction post the pandemic, with providers focusing on developing data-driven infrastructure to provide appropriate healthcare facilities and public security services. Could The first step towards the future of Smart Cities be a matter of connected buildings? BW SMART CITIES‘ Ganesh L Khanolkar explains.
Connected buildings: The first step towards the future of smart cities
Earlier this year, International Data Corporation (IDC) released a forecast predicting that the global spending on smart city initiatives will reach a staggering $124 billion, by the end of 2020. This is an increase of about 18.9% compared to the 2019 spend for the same.
This comes as no surprise considering smart cities are set to gain further traction post the pandemic, with providers focusing on developing data-driven infrastructure to provide appropriate healthcare facilities and public security services. Investments in the space too, are expected to rise significantly over the next few years.
While the smart city has definitely become a buzzword of sorts, there is very little understanding on what it takes to achieve this vision. When we think of smart cities, we immediately conjure images of Artificial intelligence (AI), driverless cars, smart street lighting, smart parking, etc. But we fail to guess the starting point of a connected society – smart buildings.
After all, buildings are the ideal starting points from which a smart city can grow. Just how a building is a functional unit of a city, smart buildings are the primary units of a smart city. Smart buildings integrate technology and the IoT to provide solutions to challenges like overspend and inefficiency in building management. Within a smart building, all the systems are connected, from managing energy, water, lighting, to delivering security and emergency services. Therefore, smart buildings empowered by the deployment of IoT and cloud technologies will be the key reason for smart cities to succeed. So what are the key factors that make a building ‘smart’? Below are some of the key features.
Energy Efficiency: Connected buildings primarily help save power and centralize control over the energy management. Such buildings unify the management of heating, cooling and lighting functions, and eliminating wastes within the building by use of advanced sensors. Smart thermostats turn the temperature down in your absence saving power to save power and also use renewable energy sources (e.g. Solar panels) thereby reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and electricity.
Predictive Maintenance: Connected building models provide constant monitoring and evaluation of embedded automation and systems. Be it anticipating asset lifecycles, or monitoring the life, repair and replacement of individual elements, predictive management help avoid shutdowns which can incur loses. Minimizing disruption in building operations reflects positively on resource and capital utilization, as well as leading to greater ROI by enhancing the market value of the property.
Enhanced Security: Smart buildings provide enhanced security on various levels. As these buildings are all connected, building managers can integrate fire, intrusion and access systems to provide inmates the highest degree of safety possible. Further, each of these critical amenities can be customized, resulting in an overall synergy, as well as a strict adherence to local or state safety compliance.
Current challenges in making old buildings smart and how technology helps
Given that half the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, this trend will put unprecedented pressure on our built environment, especially maintaining our buildings. Floor space restrictions are making our cities increasingly taller. So there is an urgent need for a reliable and efficient building services to maintain these buildings and ensure they run at optimum efficiency.
Currently what holds many buildings back from becoming smarter is their reliance the conventional paper model to manage critical systems, be it electricity, plumbing or air conditioning. Agreed that a full scale revamp of an existing building is somewhat of a costly undertaking, but technology does help make this transition easier.
Old buildings without smart sensors or fixtures can still be optimized for energy usage by deploying intelligent systems of rule-based efficiency modules. Most of these old buildings have energy meters, and further, several components of the HVAC system are energy hoggers. There is an energy meter associated with each of these. It is through these energy meters that data of energy-hogging equipment of old buildings is gathered. And by using advanced machine learning algorithms, modules can be built that can help decide how energy is being used, apart from detecting fault through identification of abnormal usage.
Such deployment of integrated IoT solutions to render old buildings advanced and smart can assure building owners and managers of a significant ROI in the long run.
How the pandemic is shifting priorities towards smart buildings
The pandemic has really forced us to rethink the way that we are currently living. While many of us have embraced technology to keep connected personally and professionally during the lockdown, very few are aware of how the concept of connected buildings (a key building block of smart cities) can be used effectively to ensure the safety of a building’s inmates and control the spread of the disease. Connected buildings are without a doubt the easiest implementation of a digital upgrade which can have a positive impact on all the fundamental elements around which our societies are organized. Therefore, it is more critical than ever for policymakers at both local, and national level to plan their connected building strategies.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
The United Nations (UN) celebrated on May 10th, 2021, the first edition of the International Day of the Argan Tree, an endemic tree in Morocco.
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