Sustainabilty is the most important topic facing humanity today because embracing sustainability means embracing our future, whereas ignoring it means accepting the status quo. The status quo mentality does not address the difficulties presented by the world population's consumption of finite resources. In order for the public in first world countries, and the politicians, to fully appreciate the magnitude of the need for sustainability in our cities, the benefits of sustainability need to be fully understood. Much of the third world already understands the need to fight climate change by using sustainable technologies for energy, however, first world countries must lead the way as pioneers and financeers of the sustainability movvement.
Sustainable city development hinges first and foremost on economic prosperity. Once the financial benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency are established and developed, government officials will endorse and promote the use of renewable energy, as the benefits will be undeniable. Ecological well-being is also both a motivating factor and benefit of creating the sustainable city. Resource management is a practice which must be embraced in order to make the sustainable city function. Finally, sustainable transport is crucial when designing or retro-fitting the city.
The new Green Economy will focus on giving up fossil fuels for renewable energy, which will lead to undeniable progress in terms of energy efficiency. The success of the Green Economy will be ensured due to its ability to create lasting economic prosperity, create green jobs and to reduce costly pollution, the overuse of finite resources and global warming. The Green Economy will focus on sustainable development of clean energy, energy efficiency, green building, clean transit and other technologies designed to save money and build a dependable future.
The underlying factor in promoting a green city is its economic health. The Green Economy must first be recognized for what it is: economically vibrant. In 2005, China passed The Renewable Energy Law, which has since brought well over $20 billion into their economy and created over 1.5 million jobs. China demonstrates the tremendous economic potential of green industry. The United States plans to increase its energy originated from renewables due, in part, to the success of the Chinese.
The United States has tremendous potential to tap into a rich array of renewable energy sources. The U.S. is surrounded by ocean, and also has a wealth of lakes and rivers for hydroelectricity. The U.S. also has an abundant amount of wind and solar, albeit seasonal & geographically dependant. Both are potentially limitless energy sources (depending on the region in America targeted for wind and/ or solar development). In addition, many forms of biomass are being developed, including biofuel, cellulosic biomass & biofuel, and untapped waste for biomass power plants. Individual states can investigate their own dynamic means to tap into renewables, as states have varying supplies of each energy type within their boundaries. California already looks to renewables for over 30% of its energy needs. There are many sources of renewable energy available to each state, including hydroelectric, wind (and offshore wind farms), solar and solar thermal (PV and CSP), geothermal (and heat pumps) and biomass, which vary in quantity due to factors such as geography. Of these energy types, hydroelectric is the most widely used in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world.
Dams are one of the most reliable energy producers available to states due to low maintenance costs, remaining operational with little overhead and almost no fossil fuel use. The low cost of energy production from dams are a big reason hydroelectric power accounts for the largest supply of the renewable energy needs of the U.S., a fact which has to be weighed when assessing the cons, namely pollution caused by stagnant water.
Unlike dams, wind and solar energy production each create no pollution after being deployed, and once they are in operation. It's possible that wind and solar could overtake hydro as the primary source of the world's alternative energy, yet wind and solar still account for a small fraction of energy production. Like dams, once wind turbines are set up, there is very little cost associated with maintenance, which is part of the reason wind is the world's fastest growing energy source.
Solar power inexplicably accounts for a tiny fraction of the world's energy needs. Like wind and dams, solar power is very inexpensive once installed, requires very little maintenance and utilizes an ever-present energy source. Like wind, there is no environmental impact, and zero emissions are generated. Solar growth is unlimited, as costs keep diminishing and demand steadily increases by about 25% per year. Solar cells represent a technology with exponential growth potential as efficiency of cells keeps increasing.
Biomass and biofuel represent potentially tremendous energy sources that demand greater research and development. In California alone, over 60 million tons of biomass are created each year, which has enough energy potential to power 2 million homes. Of course, that is far from a realistic goal, but using our waste to our advantage, as opposed to just letting it sit (mostly in landfills) draining both our ecology and economy, is the only alternative that provides a positive outcome.
On a micro level, examples of the financial success of the Green Economy are abundant. Cities like Portland, Austin and Chicago have success stories that should serve to inspire any city in the world. The obvious benefits are savings from energy costs that are shared by residents and the government. In Portland, municipal buildings save over $2 million per year by using renewables. A renewable retrofit for a district of 40 schools in Austin, Texas saved the district almost $.5 million. Chicago estimates savings of $6 million annually by retrofitting a 15 million square foot section of the city.
These types of trends are evidence of the cost efficiency of renewable energy and green buildings. The green retrofit market will grow to over $15 billion in the next few years. Energy efficiency represents the biggest selling point of building green, as increased cash flow quickly follows the recoup of the initial investment. However, lower carbon footprints, higher employee productivity, and higher property values are also primary motives.
Using resources efficiently is another key characteristic of a sustainable city. Resource efficiency reduces demand by increasing supply without increasing production. Efficiency also reduces pollution, and the costs associated with pollution management. In the over 20 years that San Jose has implemented resource management, over $5 million has been cut from energy to residential homes and over $30 million has been generated for workers. Management of waste and carbon sequestration (see: creating clean coal - carbon capture and storage) are techniques which lead to these kinds of benefits. Right now, the U.S. wastes most of the energy it produces. A paradigm shift is needed to redefine all waste as an important resource.
In addition to resource management, sustainable transport is a necessary step in creating a sustainable city. Cities need to reduce traffic, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase efficiency and create a significant step towards what is clearly being demonstrated as an inevitability in future city planning. Cities will focus on reducing the need for car use, as people will rely on light rail, bus, cycle and other forms of ecologically friendly transport. Sustainable mass transportation will consist of electric, biofuel, hybrid, natural gas and hydrogen options for buses, light rail and trains, in addition to cars. Cities will design or retro-design around transportation options and "public spaces". The car and freeway becomes less of a necessity for transit in cities once sustainable means of transportation are established and utilized. However, the further development of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles is an important positive trend for sustainable transit, as well.
Cities will have to reduce their traffic, which will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This will be the most difficult step towards progress, as the demand for cars presents an obstacle which only keeps growing. Urban planning is a great tool to reduce car dependence, as in a very dense city in which alternative modes of transport, even walking, are preferable. Since most cities are already developed, urban planners would focus on a shift to density in further urban planning, land-use strategies that prioritize conservation and developing alternative transit.
Over 100 U.S. cities are continually developing light rail, which is the quickest form of transit available. Electric rail represents an especially positive trend as it leaves no carbon footprint while reducing traffic and creating productive urban centers. As the quality of public transport continues to improve, cities are finding it easier to make investing in alternative transport technologies a priority. These technologies include electric rail, and also electric, biofuel and even hydrogen buses. Many cities in Western and Northern Europe have embraced these new technologies. Standout cities for sustainable mass transit include Portland, London, Curitiba and Vancouver.
In many ways, the most cutting edge breakthroughs in the field of sustainability are in energy efficiency, particularly the smart grid and smart meters. Breakthroughs include energy efficieny technologies for the home and business, such as Home Energy Management (HEM), demand response, community solar and net metering. Also, there have recently been great advancements in energy efficiency for entire municipalities such as district heating and combined heat and power (cogeneration). Smart grids, along with all of these other advancements in energy efficiency, will greatly help the cause of making cities more sustainable.