State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Electric Cities of the Future

We all hate getting caught in urban traffic jams; especially those with semi-trailer trucks everywhere. A Computer Aided Lean Management (CALM) approach to traffic congestion in the cities of the world creates win-win solutions to such complex problems. My favorite is to lower the volume of vehicles on the roads by voluntarily moving people to electric cars, subways, buses, and rail systems by making them faster, more energy efficient, cheaper, and most importantly, more reliable than driving to work. If the remaining cars, taxi’s and delivery trucks on the roads use electric power trains, we also lower emissions of particulates and CO2. That improves both our chances of stopping global climate change and our health (tuberculosis and asthma).

Converting our cities to electric transportation systems requires conversion from gasoline and diesel service stations to electric recharge sites and e-parking garages;
And that requires that the electric grid must deliver electricity ever more efficiently to cities in environmentally and carbon neutral ways;
And that requires massive, renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar farms and new transmission lines;
And that requires integration with distributed generation and storage facilities, such as photovoltaics on every rooftop and Universal Power Supply (UPS) type batteries in every garage;
And that requires integration of the electric grid with other vital infrastructures like transportation, water and sewage (electric pumps are critical to these systems);
And that requires cities to modernize their entire infrastructure system in order to integrate them into a smart system-of-systems with enough controls, monitors, intelligence, and above all security, so that the power never goes out;
And that requires collaboration among the great cities of the world to make such an intelligent, efficient, clean, green, affordable infrastructure management system available to all inhabitants, whether in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, , Dallas, Houston, or Shanghi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, Mumbai, Moscow, Cairo, Jerusalem, Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid, Rio, San Paulo, Caracas, Lima, Buenos Aires, or your city.

The “good” news from the current global economic meltdown, if you can call it such, is that for the first time since after World War II, we might have the focus required for an urban infrastructure makeover that is global in scale and scope. In order to get it right, CALM tools and techniques must be used for such major surgery to the energy systems of the world.

Roger Anderson is with the Columbia Center for Computational Learning Systems, SEAS

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Milton Recht
13 years ago

Switching from gasoline and diesel to electric modes of transportation requires an increase in the amount of electricity produced and used.

Solar energy production is limited by available sunlight (daytime part of day), angle with sun (closer to equator is better) and efficiency of solar cells (very low due to quantum laws of physics and chemical properties of photovoltaic materials). Solar power will always be a small fraction of US daily power production and usage.

Wind power is also limited by meteorological properties that winds blow about 30 percent of the time, vary in force and direction, limitations on density packing of wind turbines due to needs to avoid blocking of wind, and unpredictably.

The net carbon effect of switching from fossil fuels to electric power depends heavily on incremental electricity production carbon effects by US electricity power plants.

Unless the US increases its reliance on nuclear power and hydroelectric power, a switch to electric vehicles will increase the use of US coal fired plants with an incremental increase in carbon by these power stations. The increase power plant carbon output is of course offset by the decrease in carbon output from the switch to electric vehicles from fossil fuel powered vehicles. The gain however is less than the amount of carbon reduction from the switch to electric vehicles from fossil fuel vehicles because of the need to increase electrical output and its increasing carbon output.

Electric vehicles do not eliminate the need to increase electrical production from nuclear and hydropower plants.

A recent European study, where there is greater reliance on nuclear power, found that the net carbon benefit after increased electrical production is accounted for is only about 30-50 percent of the carbon reduction from the vehicles. In the US, the number is certainly much lower since our much more heavy reliance on coal for electricity production.