Could Suburbia Be Sustainable?

August 8, 2013

I suspect this may generate some comment.
Gentlemen and women, start your engines.

Paul Brown for Climate News Network:

Urban sprawl may not be as bad for the environment as we thought – as long as every home is fitted with solar panels and electric cars become the norm.

LONDON, 8 August – Modern planners are building compact cities, believing tightly controlled zones are better for the environment. New research suggests the opposite: urban sprawl might be a better option, with solar power fitted to suburban houses and the adoption of electric cars transforming the energy needs of a city.

Research in Auckland, New Zealand – the largest urban area in the country and a city built for the age of the motor car – shows that solar panels fitted to the average suburban home can produce enough power for that household, extra to charge an electric vehicle, and still generate enough watts to export a surplus to the grid.

Adopting a citywide approach to fitting solar panels and providing charging points for cars would enable suburban homes to provide most of the power for the city centre as well as keeping the transport running, according to Professor Hugh Byrd, from the School of Architecture at the University of Lincoln in England.

In collaboration with the New Zealand Energy Centre and the University of Auckland, Byrd and his colleagues found that detached suburban houses typical of a motor car age city are capable of producing ten times more solar power than is possible from skyscrapers or other commercial buildings. The calculations are based on a detailed cross section of Auckland, which has skyscrapers in its business centre but has most of its homes spread out over the surrounding countryside in an urban sprawl.

Transform planning

Although every city is different, the pattern of building in Auckland is repeated in many cities around the globe. Byrd’s idea is that if planners insist solar panels be fitted to properties and charging points be provided for electric cars, then cities judged to be damaging to the environment could be transformed.

“While a compact city may be more efficient for internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by photovoltaic installations is the main energy source and electric vehicles are the principal mode of transport” says Byrd.

“This research could have implications on the policies of both urban form and energy. Far from reacting by looking to re-build our cities, we need to embrace the dispersed suburban areas and smart new technologies that will enable us to power our cities in a cost-effective way, without relying on ever dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

Sprawl is good

“This study challenges conventional thinking that suburbia is energy-inefficient, a belief that has become enshrined in architectural policy. In fact, our results reverse the argument for a compact city based on transport energy use, and completely change the current perception of urban sprawl.”

Byrd concedes that the only way his ideas will work is if planning policy made fitting solar panels obligatory. Planning would also need to require the installation of photovoltaic roofing, smart meters and appropriate charging facilities for vehicles as standard in every household.

The advantages would be a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, long term energy security, and a reduction in city pollution.  – Climate News Network

From the paper” Measuring the Solar Potential of a City and its Implications for Energy Policy” (paywall):

For the purposes of this study, the use of PVs on vertical surfaces of tall buildings has been discounted for other reasons as well as efficiency. First, PVs can reduce the amount of daylight (passive solar energy in the visible spectrum) entering tall build- ings. The value of daylight for displacing electric lighting is far greater than the electricity provided by the PVs. Second, while PVs could be used as integral shading devices to reduce cooling load, the ability to implement this in Auckland is limited by the proximity of facades to plot boundaries (Byrd, 2012). Floor area is built to the boundary in order to maximise rental that, in turn, has a higher value than the energy required for excessive cooling loads. Third, without solar access rights in urban areas, there is no security of electricity production in the event of a new develop- ment overshadowing existing PV installations (Kellett, 2011).

6. Residential and commercial buildings

On all residential buildings, including high rise developments, it was assumed that solar panels for hot water would take priority over PVs on roofs, since the thermal conversion in these panels is significantly more efficient and cost effective than PVs.

24 Responses to “Could Suburbia Be Sustainable?”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Permaculture. There’s tons of info already out there, and it’s increasing every day. It’s possible to do an urban permaculture backyard of 1/4 acre (or even less). It’s basically about intelligent design in gardening. Some people recommended: Bill Mollison, Sepp Holzer, and Masanobu Fukouka. Recommended website:

    Backyard aquaponics, solar powered, is decent, too.

    Permaculture touts two things that aren’t really true – that it’s low maintenance and that it can be done anywhere. These really aren’t accurate. Mature systems are designed to be lower maintenance than traditional gardening, but it’s still gardening. It can be done in harsh conditions, too, but any plant prefers optimum growing conditions.

    What is true is that you don’t need fertilizer inputs and pesticide use. You can actually work against the system if you do those things.

    Permaculture will never beat industrial agriculture in efficiency or in reduced manpower and in per calorie monetary cost – but it’s sustainable. We have low food costs now specifically because the industrial model is unsustainable. We’re basically mining the land.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Thanks for the recommendations Jim. I didn’t know you could do 1/4th of an acre credibly. I’ve seen some pretty good aquaponics videos on youtube, but i’d probably reserve that option for if hamburger meat got up to 30 dollars a pound.

      We live in pretty interesting times, where if i want a burger, i can just hop in my car (or bike) and 15 minutes later, have a burger in my mouth. If i want to see the Sydney Opera House, I can just hop on a plane and in 20 hours or so, I can see it, and eat a burger too! If i want to eat high fat and cholesterol foods for 40 years, and then don’t want to die, I just put a cholesterol tablet in my mouth every day, and keep the party going.

      Tea from Africa, corn from Mexico, strawberries from Oxnard, CA, wine and chocolate from Europe. Anything I can imagine i want to eat, I can get it in my mouth within an hour’s time.

      We live better than the kings of all the eras before us.

      • jimbills Says:

        Another thing, with aquaponics: most people do look at the aquaculture side first, when it gives the least return, by far. You can grow fish in it, of course, but you’ll get multiple times more veggies out of the system. Some people take this and just use an omnivorous, temperature-hardy fish like goldfish on the aquaculture side. It greatly lowers the cost, and the hydroponics side still works at 100%. Some take it a step further and raise koi, instead – which will return the money put into it.

  2. prokaryotes Says:

    We underestimate the impacts from fossil fuel burning and nat gas.

  3. stephengn1 Says:

    As the world starts to change ever more dramatically, I suspect that many of the elites may start to institute radical plans to move people into lower carbon (more crowded) areas. I see a possible future where people of limited means might be incentivized (carrot) or outright forced (stick) to move to far more crowded urban areas and only people of (for all practical purposes) unlimited means will be able to spread out in the country.

    “Eco-tyranny” has often been posited by the right as the agenda behind “false” claims of climate change, but because they are purposely wrong about agendas and the climate changing doesn’t mean the tyranny part is any less of a threat

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I think that’s not only wrong, it’s feeding the right wing paranoia. I’ve heard Michelle Bachmann make basically that claim – ‘they want to force you into cities where you’ll all have government jobs and have to ride the subway with black people….”

      • stephengn1 Says:

        I apologize. I want to believe everyone has the best of intentions. Believe me when I say that I do not want to feed right wing anything. The last decade or so of living in what has essentially become a surveillance / security state, a nation where the 1st and 4th amendments, plus due process hardly exists any longer wears on you. I know it doesn’t help that I see the potential for such measures as originating from the right and not the left.

        I look at so many fantastic and rapid advances in technology and truly believe that climate change can not only be slowed, but reversed if we play our cards right.

        The future of humanity lies in solar catalysis – it’s really our only hope

        • stephengn1 Says:

          By the by, I live in New Orleans – Land O’ Oil and home of the largest prison population per capita on the planet (look that up). I’m taking care of my elderly parents down here. I remember the days after August 29, 2005 when soldiers and GW hired Blackwater jackboots in expensive SUVs tried (and mostly succeeded) to kick every living soul out of my hometown for a month.

    • jimbills Says:

      Well, the reverse is currently happening. The inner cities are being revitalized and are going up in property value, and the suburbs are declining in value. I’d expect that trend to continue, where we see eventually the reverse of what we had in the 1990s – very poor urban areas and very wealthy suburban areas.

      Currently, the elite have every incentive to maintain the status quo as long as possible – and that’s exactly what they’re doing with QE Infinity, bailing out the banks, playing musical chairs with debt loads, energy, and so on. The elite can just buy up the best properties and resources in any environmental situation – as long as they have the funds to do so.

      Democracies are becoming increasingly authoritarian, but largely this is reliant on the maintenance of the status quo. Any government needs two main things: support from its citizens in the forms of both manpower and funding. As things decline, we’ll probably see an increase in control followed by a disintegration of control as things become worse. The federal and state governments are unlikely to either have the funding or the manpower to maintain high levels of coercion for long stretches of time.

      Paranoia, btw, is an excellent propaganda tool – and that’s exactly what the far right is doing. They are fully committed to not only maintaining the status quo but strengthening the forces behind it. They’ll say – renewables are a conspiracy, climate change is a conspiracy, environmentalism is a conspiracy, scaling back is a conspiracy. It’s the big bad government that’s out to get you. But they ARE the maintainers of the status quo, and therefore of the elite.

      It’s no mistake that the Tea Party has such a large presence in the Energy, Environment, and Science subcommittees. Their job is to block legislation that works against certain interests, and they’re extremely good at it.

  4. KeenOn350 Says:

    “Renewable” energy sources – including Solar panels – are not by any means a large-scale solution to our present state.

    There are some sobering truths about “renewables” in this article – The Fantasy of Energy Unicorns Rescuing Industrial Civilization – including reference to a 2013 Stanford University report that calculated that global photovoltaic industry now requires more electricity to make silicon wafers and solar troughs than it actually produces in return. Since 2000 the industry consumed 75 per cent more energy than it put onto the grid and all during its manufacturing and installation process.

    Switching technologies is not a solution – only dramatically switching mind-set / lifestyles has any hope…


    • stephengn1 Says:

      Dave, you and the authors of this opinion piece have no idea what is happening to this technology every single day. Those “sobering truths” and that 2nd law bologna have been pushed time and time again by the nuclear industry in regards to solar tech and they have been proven wrong every single time.

      It is a simple, undeniable fact – the sun provides more energy than our species and all others could EVER need. Yes, we must and will move away from the current industrial paradigm and evolve. What we will NOT do is curl up and die.

    • jcl64 Says:

      There was some recent news that the total energy output of solar panels now has passed the amount of energy that went into manufacturing them. How far back in the process is considered “manufacturing” is questionable though.

      In spite of this, 10 years from now the current installed solar panel base will still produce electricity, possibly some for 50 to 100 years depending on how resilient they have been made. The future is solar, believe me. A more passive way of harvesting the sun cannot be made. Wind farms are ok, but they require a bit more maintenance and certainly upgrades as they have rotating parts. I guess the worst enemy for solar panels is being bombarded with sand or serious weather incidents.

      The question remains though if we can keep up the rat-race consumption rate that we have gotten used to and believe solar and wind will just slip in and replace fossil fuels. I highly doubt that as there are clear limits to the amount of stuff we can get out of earth, even with recycling. So a gradual reduction and more fair distribution of wealth have to be made – as well as a worldwide population decrease.

      In my eyes its not the technology that is the problem, its basically culture, religion and what people expect out of life. Clearly there has been a shift towards “a greener future” being a lifestyle that can be chosen as a challenge for life – at least for the people who have been living good lives. But there seems to be an opposing force of developing countries wanting to become western consumers, and as long as this grows faster than “the greening of western minds” we stand no chance in handling the brute force realities of limits that will be met in the near future.

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