We consider energy and the other utilities only in terms of their quantity or their cost to the average household: kWh, MMBtu, kCal, SCF, liters, gallon… there is more to energy than just that, and it is something that is relevant for urban designers as well as for end users.
When we taste a Belgian praline, we are experiencing its taste, the flavor of cherry liquor first, giving it up to the bitterness of dark chocolate… we feel its texture, hard, then liquid, then soft… we love its shape and color. None of us considers the praline as a tool to address our nutritional requirements. Some of us could be worried by its calories, by its fats or sodium content, but what we go after is that 20-seconds mouthful experience and the five minutes aftertaste. Nor would it give the same pleasure if we were to eat twenty identical pralines, one after the other. Taste, not quantity matters. kWh of electricity, standard cubic feet of natural gas, gallon of drinkable water could matter more if we’d associate them to their environmental flavor. Taste is based on appreciating the quality of small quantities. Most educated environmentalist do measure energy for its carbon content, which is the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by the combustion process. This is still old fashioned tasteless gross counting. What really matters is how much carbon emission is my lighted living room generating, how much CO2 was produced to deliver my London broil steak to the table. And when.
Learning how to associate a flavor to the energy is an excellent exercise to recover the energy value in our lifestyle. Obviously, there is a lot of consideration for how the electricity has been generated (how clean of a combustion, which percentage of renewable energy…) but it is just as important to keep in consideration the challenges of delivering energy to the final user. In most large cities, utility lines such as cables and pipes were first deployed in the early 1900s, when our great-grandfathers where very happy if they could get flushing toilets and lighted rooms. No air conditioning then, no gas cooking stoves, no computers and TV, no phone lines yet. Since then our standards for quality living have improved. Western world would consider unacceptable today a house if it had no good quality electricity, natural gas, running water, sewage and TLC services; however the pipes and wires, laid down then, are still providing most of the services we receive today.
Utility providers have evolved along with maturing needs, and have utilized technology to remove the bottlenecks in the crowded existing infrastructures. Now they face a tougher challenge: deploying new infrastructures is becoming more and more difficult, especially in densely populated areas, while the existing pipes and wires cannot deliver any more services. Furthermore, infrastructures are measured in kW (not kWh), SCF per hour, Gallon per minute: it implies that infrastructures are designed to serve the peak demand (ie kW), not the consumption (ie kWh). Proper load management could shave peak demand and significantly improve energy and water delivery capacity of existing infrastructures.
This is when the flavor of energy and water comes to the rescue. If we believe that responsible future users will value taste rather than quantity, it is possible to design the way they will live the urban context in a manner that will use existing infrastructures more effectively. People may tolerate softer lights at peak demand, slightly higher temperatures at noon during summer, slightly cooler temperatures at 10am in the office. In most cases it will not even required adapting to less physical comfort, just educating to smarter, more tasteful use. Advanced domotics allow already to heat and light offices based on how people move inside. Utilities are already deploying smart grids, some, the most enlightened, openly discuss about smart cities. In Europe, 15 years ago, Enel cabled 30 million smart meters, others are following now… Utilities have the technical and commercial skills to address the infrastructure capacity (and related investment deferrals) versus the consumption patterns (and related energy costs for users). Utilities have no interest in increasing consumption, since their returns are regulated mostly by return on qualifying investments. Utilities have an interest in maximizing their asset turnover, which is, making their installed kW, SCF per hour, GPM deliver more kWh, SCF, gallons without expensive upgrades to infrastructures.
Urban designers may plan new development projects that incorporate future energy utilization behavior, but do they have sufficient technical and economical skills to have an impact, or will they just leave it to Utility Companies to forge our future? I recommend that designers should get such skills, other ways we will keep valuing energy and water for their quantity. The same way I like to taste my Belgian praline, I like to associate a flavor to my energy consumption.
Introduction to the energy section of: New Model Cities 02: Rebooting Urban Design, Energy Economy Ecology; New York State and The Great Lakes Region, Edited by Mojdeh Baratloo, GSAPP Columbia University, 2013.