Envisioning Energy — A Design Toolkit for Urban Resilience

Project for “MAS.552 Post-Oil Shanghai — Designing Systems for New Resilient Cities in China” a City Science Initiative

Purpose: The world is experiencing a period of extreme urbanization. In China alone, 300 million rural inhabitants will move to urban areas over the next 15 years in a mass migration trend to escape rural poverty. This course focused on building new infrastructure to accommodate the equivalent of the current population of the United States in just a few decades. It is a global imperative to develop systems that improve livability while dramatically reducing resource consumption. This workshop was also an exploration of the complex and interdependent nature of housing, mobility, energy, and food production systems for high-density cities.

The workshop is built upon the research of the Changing Places Research Group to explore 5 distinct yet interdependent research areas with including Electric Mobility Ecosystem, Resilient Energy Systems, Transformable CityHomes, Urban Food Systems, and Streetscapes for Compact Urban Cells. I was on the Resilient Energy Systems team.

Resilient Energy Systems Team Members: Zak Accuardi (MIT Technology & Policy), Chen Chen (Harvard GSD), Shuai Hao (Harvard GSD), and Praveen Subramani (Researcher, Group Lead)

Course Instructors: Kent Larson (Director of City Science Initiative), Ryan Chin (Managing Director, City Science Initiative)

Team Deliverables: to explore technologies for renewable energy by applying relevant technologies in high-density neighborhoods, or “compact urban cells,” on a selected site in China. Also taking into account distributed systems of partially self-sufficient local microgrids that help maintain energy autonomy for each urban cell as well as existing energy generation, Smart Grids, Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technologies, grid energy storage and second-life automotive battery buffers.

The goal of the class was rather open-ended and we were essentially left to steer the direction of the project whilst following the guidelines above. Our team decided to bring a fresh look to understanding energy systems and created a toolkit for designers and architects. We wanted to set the ground work for a new process of envisioning energy systems from production to distribution to consumption. Please note that all graphical work are credited Chen Chen (Harvard GSD) and Shuai Hao (Harvard GSD) while my work pertained to the information embedded in the content of the illustrations:

  • to research and calculate the feasibility (both physical and financial) of all relevant energy technologies that have a 5 to 10 year time horizon.
  • to strategize the implementation and phasing in of energy technologies that optimize for economic efficiencies, environmental sustainability, and social impact
  • to generate a decision-making toolkit for designers and architects that will allow a simple screening process for the physical and financial feasibility of relevant energy technologies.

The Site: Fuxing Island Shanghai

Fuxing island is in Yangpu district close to the heart of Shanghai and at the northern edge of Pudong development belt. It is the city’s only island along the river due to the man-made canal dug during Shanghai’s ship building boom. However, much of the industry has relocated decades ago and few residents remain. One major tree-lined street connects it to the mainland via two small bridges. The total area of the island is 5.3 km2.

Our goal was to design a new resilient infrastructure that can house 30,000 occupants and 30,000 workers, support an electric mobility system, and all while considering the current site typography and existing infrastructure.

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Our first discussion before getting a tour of the island.

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Mapped area of Fuxing Island, Shanghai.

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The masterplan image rendered to overlay our own urban design components.

Questions for Building Urban Energy Resilience

Post-Industrial Landscape: Can we build on top of existing infrastructure?

After a day trip to Fuxing Island, it was apparent that the existing infrastructure in both the industrial and residential areas were extremely out dated. Many homes tapped into the grid using makeshift methods. Heavy ship building machinery were also left to decay. For this island to be sustainable, we would have to implement a heavy infrastructure overhaul with a long-term phasing process for inhabitants.

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Waste and Pollution: How do we gain stakeholder buy-in through education and cultural influences?

The current waste infrastructure is almost non-existant. Local residence and industry (post-ship-building) use the Huangpu river for waste and pollutant disposal. Nonetheless, overfish- ing has drove fish prices and some local residence still opt for eating fish out of the polluted waters.

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Power Density: How much demand can we offset with renewables?

After assessing the physical feasibility of renewable energy technologies (i.e., photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, and tidal), the site unfortunately does not provide enough natural resources to harness potential renewable technologies. For example, the average annual speed and wind density on the island does not allow wind turbines to generate enough electricity to offset the cost of implementation. However, taking this into account, the central location of Fuxing Island does make the site an excellent choice for educational and demonstration purposes. That is, installation of energy technologies can be feasible if it can provide enough educational resources to attract stakeholder buy-in and serve as a flagship model for other cities in China. These technologies included energy storage (e.g., batteries, fuel cells, pump storage), building technologies (e.g., LED lighting, sensors, insulation), transmission & distribution infrastructure (e.g., grid layout, transformers, smart meter- ing), and behavior-changing technologies or negawatts (e.g., mobile apps, smart appliances, incentives).

Below is an energy production catalogue our team developed to compare several important factors between renewable and non-renewable energy resources, including energy output, cost, and quality of life.

Since the physical area of the island is quite limited, it was essential to factor in the amount of space needed for renewable energy sources (i.e., production field area per energy source for the same amount of energy).

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The goal of the island is a mixed use live/work area, which means that the energy costs must also be low enough to sustain a good quality of living. Below is a comparison of the cost of generating 1 megawatt of energy per energy source. It’s also important to compare that cost to the lifetime energy production of the energy source.

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With a large residential population, the energy resource consideration must have a strong quality of life component. It would not make sense to use energy resources that were hazardous to the area’s inhabitants.

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When compared on all criteria, it was apparent that solar, wind, and algae/biomass energy production sources were the best choice.

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Phasing in an Entire Infrastructure: How do we prioritize phasing to optimize energy production and offset demand?

We calculated that the energy demand for 30,000 residence will range between 20–60MW; with 20MW being the ideal condition with all residence using the most energy efficient means of living (e.g., heating, insulation, etc.). We will take advantage of the time gap between demolition and build up (first 5 years) to phase in the infrastructure that will support the first 10,000 inhabitants (2014). This will involve converting the existing coal plant to a waste-to-energy plant (complete in 2014). During which, microwind turbines will line the coast and solar panels will be mounted on new buildings. Solar, wind, and biodiesel will handle up to 31.1MW of demand. While the co-generation plant (complete in 2017) will be built offsite to accommodate peak load times (up to 60MW) in surrounding areas including Fuxing island.

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Implementation and Phasing

Our implementation and phasing plan included the conversion of a nearby coal plant to a biomass natural gas plant, installation of facade and rooftop solar pv panels, as well as wind turbines.

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Since the conversion of a power plant from coal to gas will take an estimated 5 years, the reliance of the island to local renewable energy sources will also need to be phased in. However, assuming that the population will grow linearly, we anticipated that the new biomass plant will come online near the point of the island exhausting their resilient resources.

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Final Energy System Plan for Fuxing Island

Here, you can see the density of renewable energy sources overlaid on the island.

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Energy Feasibility Decision Tree

How can we best communicate between engineers and designers?

We spend countless hours researching about energy systems and constantly came upon the issue of how best to communicate our plan to other stakeholders (i.e., architects, designers, city policy makers) who do not necessarily have the background in energy. Hence, we decided to build a toolkit that leveraged illustrative representations of what we were trying to implement. I went as far as to construct a decision tree process by which anyone could use to decide whether or not a particular generation technique was feasible for their site. The decision tree starts with assessing the physical feasibility (i.e., amount of natural and spatial resource). Then moved on to financial feasibility (i.e., the ability to sell excess energy to a buyer and the amount of financing and government support available). At any point when the decision maker can go no further, then the energy generation is likely not to be feasible for their site. We see a lot of potential in developing software that will simulate this feasibility testing process where each step is much more detailed than what we have represented.

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Originally published at Lucy Zhao.

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