Cabot Institute blog

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Why cities are crucibles for sustainable development efforts (but so hard to get right)


Figure 1. Rural and urban population trends, 1950-2050.
Fox, S. & Goodfellow, T. (2016) Cities and Development, Second Edition. Routledge.

Sustainable Development Goal 11 outlines a global ambition to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It is arguably one of the most important of the 17 recently agreed Goals, but we’re unlikely to reach it in most parts of the world by 2030.

The importance of Goal 11 stems from global demographic trends. As Figure 1 illustrates, over 50% of the world’s population already lives in towns and cities, and that percentage is set to rise to 66% by 2050. In fact, nearly all projected population growth between now and 2050 is expected to be absorbed in towns and cities, and the vast majority of this growth will happen in Africa and Asia (see Figure 2).

These trends mean that when it comes to eliminating poverty and hunger, improving health and education services, ensuring universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation, promoting economic growth with decent employment opportunities, and creating ‘responsible consumption and production patterns’ (and achieving many other goals) urban centres are on the front line by default.


Figure 2. Estimated and projected urban population increase by region, 1950/2000 & 2000/2050
Dr Sean Fox, Lecturer in Urban Geography and Global Development, University of Bristol


But cities are complex political arenas prone to the kinds of conflicts that can thwart ambitious visions for transformative development.

To appreciate just how difficult it can be to achieve seemingly obvious and desirable improvements in cities, it is useful to examine some practical challenges. Consider the goal of ensuring access to clean, affordable water for all (Goal 6, Target 1; Goal 11 Target 1). In cities across Africa and Asia, a significant share of households live in informal settlements that lack piped water infrastructure. As a result, most residents rely on water provided by private vendors who sell water by the bucketful from tanker trunks or standpipes that they control. Perversely, the poor often end up paying a significant premium for their water on the open market, while more fortunate residents who are connected to municipal infrastructure pay far less. This perpetuates inequality, both between socioeconomic groups and between men and women (as women generally bear the burden of water collection in such contexts), and it also means that there are groups of people with fairly strong incentives to resist infrastructure investments: the water vendors. And these vendors sometimes take aggressive steps to protect their captive markets and thwart infrastructure development.

A similar dynamic is often at play when it comes to upgrading informal settlements more generally. In many cities poorer households do not have formal (i.e. legally binding) tenure security but rather pay some form of rent to a third party in return for protection against eviction. This form of ‘land racketeering’ is often undertaken by the very politicians and bureaucrats who should be seeking to improve citizens’ lives.

In other words, urban underdevelopment creates profitable opportunities for some, which in turn creates interest groups opposed to change.

But even rich cities, with well-developed physical infrastructure and formal tenure arrangements, often suffer from political gridlock that impedes progress. Consider the city of Bristol in the UK. Bristol was recently voted the best place to live in the UK, yet the city also suffers from dangerous levels of air pollution, which is linked directly to debilitating levels of traffic congestion in the city.
While Bristol’s transport woes have long been recognized, it has proven fiendishly difficult to tackle the underlying problem: a lack of metropolitan-scale transport planning and investment integrated with land use plans. This is due to a legacy of ‘horizontal fragmentation’ and ‘vertical dependence’.

Figure 3. Map of Greater Bristol with council boundaries 

Horizontal fragmentation refers to the fact that Greater Bristol—i.e. the functional area of the city as defined by daily commuter behaviour—is home to over 1 million people spread across four different local government areas, each with its own budget, council, transport planning processes, etc. As Figure 3 clearly shows, the local government boundaries (in red) carve up this functional urban region into four artificial parts). Indeed, in some places, such as north Bristol, local government boundaries run straight through clearly contiguous built-up areas (represented as grey). The challenge of coordinating planning and investment across four councils is compounded by the fact that in the past any major infrastructure investment needed to be approved and funded by the UK central government (i.e. the problem of vertical dependence). This support is not necessarily forthcoming. An ambitious plan tabled around the turn of the millennium to integrate city transport with a tram network, and make the whole system more inclusive for low income residents, was rejected by central government. This is a prime example of how political challenges in wealthy countries impede development progress.

In sum, there are significant political obstacles to progress in poor cities and rich cities alike. But this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. In fact, recognising and understanding these political complexities is helpful in identifying effective courses of action, whether as citizens, activists or policymakers. I doubt we will fulfil the aspirations of SDG 11 in a convincing manner by 2030, but I am hopeful that progress can be made if we approach the challenge with our eyes wide open to the political dynamics that could undermine our efforts.

Blog by Dr Sean Fox, School of Geographical Sciences. Originally hosted by the Policy Bristol blog.

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.




Thursday, 20 April 2017

Smart Energy Marketplace 2017

The energy market is changing. Although, when I say changing, what I really mean it is moving back to how it was in the beginning, in a manner of speaking. When electricity was first brought to the UK, the generators were placed close to loads to reduce transmission losses. We then moved to a more centralised grid, with a smaller number of large power stations, and energy shipped all over the country through a high voltage transmission network. With the more recent increase in renewable penetration, roof-top solar, small- and large-scale storage, all of which is distributed across the country, we are shifting back to the distributed generation paradigm. Power is not only flowing from the centralised generation facilities, but also from traditional consumers as well. This creates a large number of new problems to solve.

This year’s Smart Energy Marketplace, organised by Regen, discussed this shift from centralised to distributed generation, with panellists and delegates from large industry, technology start-ups, consultancies, national and local government and academia. I was really interested in finding out how local generation was being utilised, what barriers were felt to exist restraining the move to a fully distributed grid and how policies, charging regimes and attitudes in industry were changing and developing.

There were several major barriers that came up during the discussions:
  •  How to balance supply and demand, both of which could potentially be highly volatile, along with the integration of storage;
  • Grid capacity constraints and need for reinforcement when adding distributed generation which can lead to disproportionately high costs for small generators;
  • The roll-out of smart meters to enable variable electricity tariffs for domestic consumers;
  • Automation technology in homes to allow devices to be switched on and off remotely or automatically dependent on energy price;
  • Consumer engagement issues, not willing to move suppliers or change behaviour to save money.

These barriers were identified through a number of different case studies presented, such as the Sunshine Tariff pilot study in Wadebridge, Cornwall. Here consumers were incentivised by reduced energy prices to use power during the day. This local and regional balancing of supply and demand seems to be one of the key ways to reduce energy cost, and prevent the need to reinforce the grid further.

Cornwall seemed to be a real hub for energy market innovation, which may be due to the grid constraint in the county, along with the massive renewable generation opportunities that have continue to be exploited. (The UK’s first wind farm at Delabole has recently celebrated its 25th birthday!) Cornwall County Council together with Regen are developing ideas to improve the local energy market, improving access to local energy, working with community energy groups, housing stock improvements and using the geothermal potential to supply heating needs. All this will support the population living in energy poverty, whilst still maintaining a low carbon future for the county and keeping money within the local economy. The Eden Project has also trialled a peer-to-peer trading platform called Piclo, developed by Open Utility, where it could choose where to buy its electricity from depending on price and availability.

Energy Local presented two of their projects, SWELL and Bethesda, where they developed local energy clubs to buy power from local renewable energy suppliers at lower cost, with the consumers working on a time-of-use tariff to reduce bills. This enables the supplier to earn more from their generation, and consumers to keep their money in the local area. Other local energy groups, such as Plymouth Energy Community, looked at creating their own energy supply, by creating their own customer base and buying the aggregated power from an existing electricity supplier, known as white labelling. This is able to develop local tariffs for the community, and again keep profits in the local economy.

During the day, many presenters and delegates were discussing local energy platforms, in relation to local balancing through micro-aggregation of supplies and loads, private or virtual private wire systems, peer-to-peer trading, and how to engage energy consumers with the benefits of these new technologies – a problem when it may only save them around £150 a year. A major barrier to these ideas were policy, with the current trading market unable to deal with this flexibility. However, through funding being delivered through the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, this is beginning to be addressed.

The event concluded with a presentation from a panel of investors and renewable operators, talking about the current market and business opportunities within it. As the UK government has cut back on the feed-in tariff and the renewables obligation, there were many concerns that future renewable installations would collapse. However, there was some cautious optimism from those involved with many thinking that large scale solar has nearly reached grid parity, especially where the grid connection is geographically near, with grid storage parity also possible in the next few years.

What have I taken away from the day? I think there are three main points:
  • There is huge opportunity in local supply and consumption to reduce costs and remove strain from the grid – a real win-win for all involved. Using tools such as peer-to-peer electricity trading and 30 minute electricity pricing tariffs can allow consumers to be fully empowered to control and reduce their spending, and decide when to use power.
  • Policy needs to move forward quickly to catch up with the new market to allow these opportunities to really take off.
  • Consumers must be engaged and empowered into this new energy future to ensure its success. Technology will be required to allow many choices to be carried out automatically, but some users will still want to be interacting with the process.

The full conference presentations from the day can be found here, and those from the talks can be found here.

Blog by Dr Sam Williamson, Faculty of Engineering. Sam is a Lecturer in Electrical Engineering, in the Electrical Energy Management Group, interested in how energy can be provided sustainably and appropriately, both to existing users and those without access.