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Major urban low-carbon innovations include net metering, vehicle fleet emissions standards, complete streets zoning, wind-powered trains and electric buses, all driven by regulation and policy.

Air Quality

What Are The Top 5 Innovations For Low-Carbon Cities?

Major urban low-carbon innovations include net metering, vehicle fleet emissions standards, complete streets zoning, wind-powered trains and electric buses, all driven by regulation and policy.

At first blush, the list seems obvious. Electrification of transportation, buying clean energy from wind and solar generation, and some low-carbon building changes. But that seems a bit too facile. What’s really changing cities?

My personal list of major urban low-carbon innovations includes net metering, vehicle fleet emissions standards, complete streets zoning, wind-powered trains, and electric buses. Almost all of them are driven by governments through regulation, policy, or investment. These aren’t Silicon Valley plays.

Net metering

This is a policy placed upon regulated electrical utilities in many parts of the world by state governments. Simply put, it requires that the utility:

  • allow home- or office building-generation of electricity via solar panels,
  • provide backup and other ancillary services for the local generator,
  • accept excess generated electricity, and
  • only charge the building for the net electricity consumed from the grid.

This is a good deal for the utility until generation reaches about 1.5% of demand, as it displaces close-to-peak generation that the utility would otherwise have to pay for itself. After that, it starts getting harder to manage and typically starts costs them sufficient revenue at peak prices, which leads them to dislike it. The battleground for that was California most recently, and the utilities were required to continue net metering.

This makes the top five because this policy approach led to the boom in zero-down leasing of solar panels via SolarCity and the like, the duck curve in California, and resultant grid-balancing storage from Tesla, all innovations which depended upon regulation forcing disruption of the utility monopoly.

Vehicle fleet mileage standards in California, the EU, and now China

California and the EU led the way as major car markets in driving car manufacturers globally to improve miles per gallon and litres per 100 km for their fleets. This regulatory mechanism led to vastly improved engine control mechanisms, especially the investment in computerization and sensors nets that allow vastly different engine characteristics at the press of a button.

While cars have grown in number on an average of 4% per year and grown larger in the USA especially, the amount of gas and diesel burned tracked below that growth number. The displacement of tonnes of CO2 by forcing emissions standards on car manufacturers is hard to discount.

But it too had follow-on benefits. Tesla makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year by selling its clean emission credits to other manufacturers in California. That’s pure profit, or at least reduction of loss. And Tesla is leading the way in cars which emit no carbon during operation, and also providing home generation and both home- and grid-battery storage, working to make the entire cycle carbon neutral. It is able to do this in large part because of California’s regulatory leadership.

But now both the EU and California are being challenged by China.

“China is already the world’s leading electric vehicle market by a wide margin. In 2016, China EV sales reached 507,000 units, more than double the level in Europe (221,000) and almost four times the US number (157,000). China EV sales are expected to climb to 700,000 this year, according to the China Association of Automotive Manufacturers.”

That’s due to aggressive governmental policy to clean up city air, reduce carbon emissions, and take a leadership position in the global electric car industry. Chinese firms are investing in electric vehicle manufacturing facilities in Germany and California, among other places.

Complete streets

This is a zoning innovation which has emerged over the past couple of decades that is transforming cities for the better. It could be argued that it grew out of New Urbanism, but my take on New Urbanism is that it was merely a diversion into a particular form of suburban and ex-urban development. Complete streets are different.

This is Hornby Street in downtown, Vancouver, a 5-minute walk from where I’m typing this answer. It’s a fairly representative complete street. It has space for all forms of transportation, not just cars. It has segregated-from-traffic bike lanes (or bike paths) in both directions. It has sidewalks as well. It has tree cover which keeps pedestrians and cyclists shaded and more comfortable. It has street furniture which allows bicycle locking. The streetscape is fairly permeable and busy, with businesses and services on both sides which operate at various times of the day and night.

Lanes for cars are narrower than North American standard as well with lots of obstacles close to the road. This is an interesting story in and of itself. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, as road-building engineers were thinking about safety, they made a few assumptions. They thought that roads would be safer if lanes were wider at about 13 feet and if there were no obstacles for cars to run into on the sides of the roads. But that turned out to be the opposite of true. Empirical studies performed in a variety of places since 1990 have found that roads are safer for everybody with narrower lanes at around 11 feet wide and with obstacles close to the road. The combination slows the maximum speed of traffic substantially without at all reducing throughput. That alone reduces CO2 emissions because they are related to acceleration and a gentler flow of car traffic with slower acceleration burns less gas.

This is why Vancouver is one of the most walkable and bikeable cities in the world, and it’s a global zoning trend. It helps with getting people out of their cars and onto the streets on foot, bikes, skateboards, and rideables. With good transit, it’s a huge value proposition for reducing transportation emissions in cities.

And green streets are lower-emission streets. Trees reduce the urban heat island effect and shade buildings, reducing the summer air conditioning load and reducing Venturi effect winter winds which suck heat from buildings. Along with Vancouver’s pedestal and tower architecture, the downtown core is much less windy than Toronto’s howling streets between buildings.

Trains running on wind energy

Moving people around requires a lot of energy. Urban trains are big, heavy tubes of steel on metal wheels. Sensible cities have either electrified them fully already or are on track to do so. And the leading cities are buying wind energy specifically to run them, which is zero-carbon energy during operation.

Calgary, Alberta, of all places is a leader in this trend.

There are a couple of interesting numbers in that table (click to enlarge). Calgary has more rapid transit kilometres of lines per million residents than any city in Canada and has opened more kilometres of lines in the past decade as well.

And in 2009, the city committed to having the trains be fully powered by wind energy generated in the province. It has other challenges, as shown by the incredibly low ratio of people living within a kilometre of a station. You just can’t fight the sprawl that Calgary has allowed over the past decades in that sense. As a global comparison, Singapore’s goal is to have 80% of its residents living within 400 meters of a subway stop and it’s on track to achieve that.

Perhaps it was just envy, but the Netherlands decided to outdo Calgary. As of 2017, Dutch trains all across the country are powered solely by electricity generated by wind.

The greater Toronto area is going in this direction as well. Electrification of GO Trains and expansion of the number of urban stations are core to John Tory’s Smart Track plan. It isn’t expected to source electricity solely from wind energy, but Ontario massively de-carbonized its grid due to the Green Energy Act of 2009. It eliminated coal generation entirely, built a lot of wind and solar, built some gas generation, and refurbished its low-carbon, low-pollution nuclear fleet. Electricity in Ontario has a ways to go to achieve what it needs to, but it’s done a lot better than most jurisdictions in the same time.

Electric trains are just better urban neighbours and more pleasant to ride. Diesel engines are noisy and stink, both of which make the transit experience less enjoyable for riders and for the people living near tracks. And electric trains powered by low-carbon energy are excellent people movers.

Battery-electric buses

This has been a nutty explosion. When I wrote about urban transit system emissions in 2014, I assessed hydrogen, diesel and trolley-electric buses for their relative CO2 loads. I found that trolly-electric buses were best overall and trending better of course. Surprisingly, I found that hydrogen was worst.

I was challenged by a few people about the requirement for overhead lines, but it was a defensible position in 2014 as range and availability of electric buses was limited then. Three years later, not so much.

In 2015, Chinese electric vehicle giant BYD unveiled the first full-sized, long-range battery-electric bus. I like to refer to BYD as the global leader in electric vehicles no one knows about excepting for regular readers of outlets like CleanTechnica, and of course hundreds of millions of people in China.

Now cities all over the world — like London, England; St. Albert, Alberta; and Chicago, Illinois — are buying electric buses and putting fleets of them on the street. Typically, they are testing them out with fleets of 3 to 20, which is great. London, for example, is making a couple of lines fully electric.

But that’s nothing compared to China.

That’s right. Over a hundred thousand electric buses sold in 2016 alone. Like the Chinese government’s focus on electric cars, this is due to an aggressive government focus on clean urban air, lower CO2 emissions, and leading a future market.

These amazing innovations are innovations driven by regulation and policy that is intended to both protect health, protect the planet, and drive economic growth. They are making our cities more liveable and gracious but simultaneously lowering carbon emissions and making them healthier as well. Great stuff from governments and companies around the world.

Innovation in regulation, policy, and governmental investment in the future remains critical to a low-carbon future.

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is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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