Building new smart cities or dressing up the old ones – do both with greenovation

Green innovation. Norway. It is not the only place where smart zero, emission innovation happens, but it is definitely one of the driving forces behind it. With a new institute to research and create the future of smart cities, there’s a lot to expect and learn from the country in terms of drafting the blueprints for a more sustainable future for all of us.

Accelerating the clean energy transition

Last week, I went to an event held in the European Parliament, organised by a Norwegian research center – the ZERO EMISSION NEIGHBORHOODS IN SMART CITIES (ZEN). It is the first time I heard about some of the pilot projects they have throughout Norway and some of the tech showcased during the discussion was truly fascinating. My interest peaked and so here is this blog post. I guess it is wise to put a disclaimer here that the ZEN institute, nor the organizers are involved in any way in writing this article.

A third of the greenhouse emissions (according to Architechture2030) today are produced from buildings. But while there is a big pressure to remedy this, there is also a huge motivation to develop novel solutions. And while STEM researchers continue to provide such solutions, the true need is for ready to use solutions as otherwise we stand no chance in meeting the UN 2030 goals for reducing greenhouse emissions (UN goals page).
The European Union has also committed to investing further in sustainable technologies increasing the budget for the Clean Energy Package 2020-2030, together with the budget for research and innovation in general. The next Work Program from the European Commission – Horizon Europe will build on the previous one (Horizon2020), by dedicating 100bln euros to science. And about 20% of this is foreseen to be invested in the creation and implementation of innovations related to smart buildings and cities. 

Who is investing most in the green energy revolutions (by region) - source is a CNN article - click on the image to follow the link.

Building smart

Zero emission buildings are much more than you’d think in the first place. It is not only about having zero CO emissions or to be independent in terms of energy production/consumption. There are actually several definitions on what a zero emission building is (ZEB – image below). Generally, at the worst case, a ZEB should be able to produce as much energy as it would use in order to be self-sustainable in operation. Ideally, it would produce more in order to compensate for the energy invested in its construction, materials sourcing and eventually – demolition.
Places like Vancouver and California, next to Norway, are advancing the green economy with admirable speed.

However, it is not easy to say how many buildings today are one or another zero emissions type, but the World Green Building Council sources a good list of the projects tasked with developing such buildings around the world (link to their page here).
Some estimates, place the percentage of ZEBs in Europe around 40, while other, more conservative calculations, lower it to barely 10%. Whatever the actual number, it is not nearly enough, nor what it should be by now. Some governments are subsidising the building of ZEBs, but this is far from the prevalent practice yet (interesting summary about the market growth by Vox.com). 

This graph from the ZEN institute shows how much energy a sustainable building of the future needs to produce in order to make up for the energy invested in it's whole life cycle of existance - from sourcing the materials to demolishing it.

Smart refurbishing

An interesting point was made during the event, I went to: 

“Everyone can build zero emissions buildings of some sort nowadays. The true challenge is to refurbish the existing non-compliant buildings in a way that they become at least somewhat more energy efficient.”

Refurbishing existing non-sustainable buildings can prove to be much more challenging and less straightforward than building new compliant ones. Recent research shows that buildings renovation to date actually rarely addresses the problem of sustainability of the building correctly (this peer-reviewed article by Kamari et al. talks about it at length). 
Every third building in Europe being more than 50 years old.

This means it is high-time we crack down on either making them sustainable or replacing them with ZEBs altogether. 
There are many things we can do to upgrade our older building to a more modern-energy-friendly one:
♥ install solar panels;
♥ use natural ventilation systems;
♥ install high-performance windows and insulation.
These are just a few obvious ones (the National Institute for Building Sciences which is supported by the American Department of Energy, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency has much more ideas on their page you can get inspiration from). 

Ultra novel alternatives

The point is though, that making buildings green is just not enough anymore. The new kid on the block is the green neighbourhood – whole communities with their infrastructure and transportation designed for zero emissions. This is where the Norwegian ZEN Institute, whose event inspired me to look into all this, comes back. They have several pilot projects throughout the country to build zero emission neighbourhoods, but also to upgrade existing one to a desirable green state (list of these projects can be found in detail here). 

Aside of the Norwegians, other innovation companies are also installing prototipes which will hopefully help make whole areas more sustainable, not just single buildings. Ultra Smart Streetlights, for example, are being installed as a trial in some communities and are not only energy efficient LEDs, but are also responsive to various environmental conditions with their luminosity in order to be more useful for the inhabitants. In other cases, mini wind-turbines are installed in cities where wind is abundant, in order to reduce the greenhouse output from some municipality buildings. Solar trees are also “sprouting” in certain areas in order to provide extra energy for the grid when necessary. Hopefully, these and other innovative solutions will take root and transform quickly our surroundings to allow us to take advantage of renewable sources of energy.

In closing

I know that in our apartment we opted for an electricity supplier who has a higher share of energy from renewables than its competitors in the local market. Sometimes there is not much you can do in terms of upgrading, especially when you rent in an apartment building. But making the greener choice when you have it is already something. And the usual “good energy hygiene” is absolutely mandatory whether or not it is the only thing you can do to be more energy efficient. 

I am curious to know what do you do to reduce your energy use? Have you done home improvements in order to decrease your greenhouse gases output? Do leave a comment in the section below with the various tips and tricks you employ to be more sustainable! Looking forward to hearing from you!

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