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"Renewable energy and persistence alter all things"

After Benjamin Franklin


The power of universities in the age of global warming - introducing the IEA's Solar City Program

P.Droege 1999 - 2008
Universities and cities

Universities are the cultural hearts of most cities - and they often operate as cities within cities. They could have an extraordinary role to play in the future of cities world-wide, in demonstrating how to intelligently manage communities in times of global warming, depleting fossil fuels and a general call for environmental sustainability.

This paper proposes Project Global Campus, an alliance of universities as concerned communities, local and global community nuclei and as physical assets that need to be managed sustainably. It suggests a concrete alliance with 'Solar City' - an international program to assist cities and city regions in integrating solar and other renewable energy technologies, as well as energy conservation and efficiency measures. The aim of this new International Energy Agency (IEA) initiative is to help achieve globally sustainable greenhouse gas emission levels and lower reliance on fossil fuel.

Cities and power

If cities are a logical focus for international energy policy aimed at greenhouse gas reduction through both efficiency measures and the introduction of new technologies, then this premise is sharpened in university campuses. In preparing to work with international cities to achieve planned, absolute emissions reductions based on quantifiable base information, the project would also like to assist universities. But why cities?

Advanced energy policy is characterised by a drive towards increasing efficiency, a hallmark of a progressed stage in development and international competitiveness. Inevitably on the rise will also a global move to renewables, in light of the rising economic and health costs of air pollution and a mounting struggle for an effective global greenhouse response. Contemporary energy policy also faces the need to simultaneously address supply and demand, address top-down as well as bottom-up approaches and seize any positive opportunities stemming from market liberalisation, and harness those of technological change.

The argument that cities and city regions are likely to be a crucial and fertile ground for effective energy policy, programs and projects is founded on three premises. The first is people. People make up the markets for energy services and products, and, rather than being passive cogs in a global machinery, they can be powerful drivers of change. An increasing portion of people lives in cities: we live in a rapidly urbanising world indeed. A majority of people in the developed world are city-based, and the rate of urbanisation in most developing countries is rapidly approaching these levels as well - along with ever higher energy consumption rates.

Second, Cities are not only powerful markets but also the national and regional seats of political power and the core settings of cultural discourse and technological innovation. They also construct the administrative frameworks for development: local government, planning structures and the powerful civic organisations that are so important in many cultural contexts.

Finally, the growth - or better sprawl - of modern cities has been powered by a seemingly abundant supply of fossil fuel. This has resulted in urban agglomerations and architectural forms inconceivable without such forms of power for transport, construction machinery and industrial manufacturing processes. In turn, ever more powerful labour markets spring up around the centralised and networked city regions anchored by heavy investments in infrastructure: power, transport and communications - ever more bolstering their primacy over non-urban hinterlands. The new cities of the 19th and 20th centuries - and the very cultures they engendered - were a product of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. London exploded with coal-fired power, pre- and post WWII modern city utopias in the Soviet Union, the United States, Europe and coastal China alike were triggered by an high-energy shock of the new. Los Angeles is perhaps the ultimate petroleum city. Because of this central significance of cities and their utter dependence on depleting fuel supplies, the manner in which renewable energy strategies are being played out is of crucial importance for the future of global civilisation and local cultural settings. Our cities have to change.

Cities in the 21st century face declining fossil fuel resources, and, being where many people live and intensely interact socially, politically, economically and culturally, they also face increasingly intense local action, to improve the local environment and to combat global warming. Business, industry, science, technology and governments are challenged intensely to respond and deliver solutions. It is here where Solar City aims to link local agendas and national frameworks to international challenges and resources.

Cities face momentous opportunities in an eventual change from the risky and costly systems of fossil power reticulation to sustainable, affordable, diverse and ultimately ubiquitous energy systems. The aspiration is one of growing choice in scales of operation and levels of technological sophistication. Fundamental changes in urban power regimes that are in keeping with sustainable development practices promise to revitalise regional and rural development, as well as boost urban business and technological innovation. And by pursuing energy reform strategies in keeping with globally sustainable greenhouse gas emission levels, our cities can also act globally, and help achieve greater equity and justice in international development.

The International Energy Agency and urban development

The IEA conducts well over 100 research and development projects in a very wide range of renewable energy technologies and energy-efficient management techniques. Within this extraordinary portfolio many activities offer rather direct solutions and systems that can be promoted and applied in cities, the rest have indirect significance. There is a great opportunity to relate these to the needs and wants of local communities and their markets. The Solar City Program sets out to do that.

A reformed and integrated local energy planning agenda promises to yield benefits in key performance dimensions of good government:

  • scaleable responses
  • market development
  • fit with local traditions
  • urban competitiveness
  • greater accountabilities
  • technological innovation
  • distributed responsibilities
  • quality of life improvements
  • economic and regional development
  • enhanced individual choice and empowerment
  • support of other urban environmental dimensions
  • (water, food, biodiversity, rural anchoring, urban sustainability)
  • outcome-geared reform and strengthening of local governance
The complexities of local government require local consensus and national support - and can benefit from well-dosed and tailored international technical assistance programs.

Energy technological and management innovation can further rapid and sustained levels of growth, overcoming the technological hurdles and environmental dilemmas of 19th and early 20th century technologies. There is the theoretical opportunity of avoiding past errors of modernisation. Banking on this prospect, the IEA can assist in linking to international sustainability networks via a technology and policy focus.

And our universities can lead the way. There are not only asset management opportunities to be grasped and savings to be made but also, and more importantly, ways to be discovered of engaging the research and development infrastructure of the world's great universities in critical innovation, both as partners in this program, and as institutional citizens, compelling host cities to participate. Solar Cities' Project Global Campus seeks active partners to help build a viable international university network aimed at living up to this enormous leadership challenge.

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