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Initiative for an International Renewable Energy Agency

Energy Autonomy
Energy Autonomy.
The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy. Earthscan/James & James, December 2006.

Feed-In Tariffs - Boosting Energy for our Future
Feed-In Tariffs - Boosting Energy for our Future. A guide to one of the world's best environmental policies. World Future Council brochure, June 2007.


From fossil to solar cityArticle published in EUROSOLAR (Ed.): The City - A Solar Power Station. 6th European Conference Solar Energy in Architecture and Urban Planning, Bonn, September 12th - 15th, 2000

For as long as in the history of human settlement there were no efficient energy systems, no rapid and large-volume transport capacities and no traffic infrastructure, areas of settlement had to remain directly linked to the areas where energy was generated and food produced. The fields and forest regions that supplied the energy resources for the cities in pre-industrial times had to be some 40 to 100 times larger – depending on soil quality and climatic cultivation conditions – than the actual areas of settlement. For as long as this natural limit to growth was respected, there was little likelihood of supply crises. Economic conditions seldom permitted excessive wealth; yet on the other hand, the only real threat to stability was posed by the effects of wars. Standards of living admittedly varied depending on natural conditions or differing levels of technical and cultural development. But in the pre-industrial era these variations were less significant than in the industrial age with its dependency on fossil fuel when they developed on a global scale. The differences emerged most significantly after the system of fossil energy was first concentrated and monopolised in the first half of the 20th century and eventually became globalised in the second half of the century.

At the height of the Roman Empire in the first century AD Rome had approximately half a million inhabitants. In 1800 there were still only 50 cities in the world with a population of over 100,000. It was not until the Industrial Revolution and the possibilities it created in terms of concentrated energy supply and ever improving transport possibilities that the foundations were laid for the growth of the conurbations and hence the shifting of the centres of settlement from the country to the town. What made this development possible was the ability to transport food and energy from greater and greater distances to the areas of urban settlement increasingly easily in technical terms and increasingly efficiently in commercial terms. In 1800 there was only one single city in the world with a population of 1 million; in 1900 there were 13; by 1990 there were 300. The industrial urban centres developed initially in the regions with major coal deposits and later along the main lines and major flows of energy supply, which was becoming increasingly concentrated. On this basis they also developed into centres of energy-intensive services. The faster the fossil mega-cities grew, the more inorganic and rampant they became.

Initially the fossil city grew at a relatively slow pace since not all the possibilities offered by fossil energy systems and energy transport were yet available. At first the only way to transport large quantities of primary energy was by cargo ship to ports or cities situated on rivers. Then fossil fuel started to be transported by rail in goods trains, a development that enabled large cities to grow up in the interior far from major rivers or canals. Electrical power lines then enabled power to be transported quicker and over greater areas, while at the same time systems of energy use also multiplied. The more plentiful and varied these systems of energy transport and use became, the more the energy supply and transport infrastructure was expanded and the further and faster the energy flows streamed out to the industrial metropolises. The fastest and largest surges of growth were generated by the national electricity grid and mass production of the car, which increasingly became the characteristic symbol of urban development. Yet, particularly in the initial phase of the development of fossil cities, there was still scope for a gradual adaptation to industrial development – and thus opportunities to shape it step by step.

Virtually all urban sociologists today predict that settlement will continue to shift to the mega-cities, which will continue to grow, and talk as though this were an irreversible trend of cultural alignment affecting society everywhere. Yet if they accept this development as being virtually predestined and therefore immune to influence, they ignore how fragile the energy conditions of these cities will become or, in the case of the developing countries, have long been. In most cases they fail to grasp that it is not only desirable but also crucial and possible for civilisation to develop along other lines. They painstakingly attempt to list all the individual problems and deal with each separately – and can do nothing to prevent the volume of problems multiplying until they are no longer containable. The development of cities, which only serves to perpetuate dependence on fossil fuel, is such that few of the key players seem aware that the system of fossil energy is merely an intermezzo in history. Only if the system of fossil power including the nuclear power stations were to be replaced by another centralised energy system would it be theoretically possible to continue to give way to the trend towards mega-city structures. But even this would result in a further destruction of rural ways of life. The system of centralised energy supply is also making lifestyles in the cities increasingly uniform, monotonous, and economically and culturally impoverished.

As the system of fossil power gave rise to the industrial centres, they drew people magnetically towards them. The big cities promised jobs and quick riches. Early industrial exploitation and mass poverty, as they were vividly described by the first modern social critics, were overcome or alleviated under the growing influence of the organized social movement. The cities provided the dominant model of civilisation: industrial work, diversity of educational, occupational, leisure and cultural opportunities, and mass communications. The accumulated capital was used to erect grandiose buildings: structures for factories, gas and water works that today accommodate luxury dwellings; structures in iron – from hall roofs to railway stations and bridges -  with transparent girders and ornate mouldings. The city was in the ascendant – until the industrial towns and cities themselves fell into the trap of growth based on fossil energy: they lost their industrial work base, the internal structure that relied on this base began to crumble and the environmental problems started to run out of control.

Centralised energy systems and their role in aligning urban areas

For as long as a shortage of energy was a feature of virtually every civilisation, living areas always had to be designed to take account of local bio-climatic conditions and locally available materials: taking advantage of the sun or shade, heat insulation or cooling properties depending on their bio-climatic position. Trees were used as wind protection, slopes for heating, wind breaks for cooling, round buildings to save energy, forest wood, local stone or earth as building materials. Thus in cities, towns and villages around the world diverse building structures, building styles and building materials evolved which were dependent on local conditions, an “evolution of solar architecture” (Behling). This history of building development was disrupted in the course of the 20th century. Where coal, oil, gas and building materials were readily available, structures lost their typical climate-related and therefore regional character.

Since the flow of energy and materials was no longer subject to bio-climatic and geographical conditions, the architects and urban planners had the freedom to design without reference to the local environment – and ironically ended up in the process with a standard global architecture. They no longer felt constrained to use natural cooling systems since the power grids supplied any amount of energy for cooling. They felt free to ignore natural sources of heat since there was no longer any problem with acquiring heating energy from half way around the globe. They saw the opportunity to use centralised sources of energy and materials to build industrially and therefore at lower cost. They created buildings that increasingly lacked originality, quickly lost their identifying character and had to be renovated or demolished at ever shorter intervals. Whether in Berlin or Rio, Paris or Athens, Sydney or Boston – the buildings of the modern architects became uniform, interchangeable and indistinct.

The philosophy of fossil city planning was formulated in the 40s by Le Corbusier in his “Charter of Athens” which separated urban areas according to the functions of living, working, shopping, leisure activities and traffic. The charter was a response to the problems of the fossil city without questioning its basis. It set out to protect residents from growing traffic – at the price of a multiplication of traffic flows. What was designed to be more functional also became more complex and time-consuming and destroyed structures of communication. The symbols of the fossil city are the functional centres as an expression of disconnected living spaces: industrial zones, shopping, sporting, health, leisure and cultural centres. What developed was a form of functionalism which was designed primarily for mobility and which had a separating effect, leading to ever increasing space requirements for roads and cars which carved up the organic life of parts of the city. The traffic routes became the sole and thus dominant connecting elements and therefore the main burden for the major cities.

But if the key element of this division of labour, i.e. gainful employment in the industrial centres, declines significantly, the fossil mega-city is threatened with internal decline. At the moment our attention is diverted from this problem by images of the future which enthuse about the transformation of the mega-city into the global city: a city which is home to the headquarters of the global players, and in which consultancies, information and financial service providers, advertising agencies, hotel chains and software companies vie for business. But how many cities in the world can play such a role – in the face of the global trend towards major mergers, and therefore fewer headquarters of companies but more and more people living in the cities?

Structural change in the labour market and erosion of the mega-city.
For as long as the infrastructure of concentrated energy supply continued to be centred on the cities, they were the privileged economic locations. The global expansion and wide-ranging linking of fossil energy systems and global industrial structural change have invalidated this tie. Companies in many branches of industry are able to relocate increasingly easily and rapidly so that not even the increased mobility of people can keep pace.

In the mega-cities the new mobility of industrial locations leaves people in their functionally separate living quarters, from which they emerge in their masses to go to work, shopping or in pursuit of leisure. Separation of functions in towns without sufficient work and income from employment as leavening agent becomes meaningless and leads to ghettoisation. Modern, often highly paid service occupations are contrasted with increasing numbers of simple, mostly low hourly-paid jobs in the catering trade, shuttle services and cleaning professions. In the “self-destructive longing for the global city”, as Hartmut Häußermann described the glorification of this type of urban “modernisation model”, the rise in the number of jobless and those in poorly paid jobs is paralleled by a rise in the number of people who are dependent on local authority and/or state social benefits. Tax revenue for the towns is reduced correspondingly. The financial crisis at local government level forces the towns and cities to privatise local government functions and commercialise previously free or low-cost public services. Access to public areas is thus made difficult if not impossible for many people. The social differences and divides increase and with them the tensions and criminality. The fall of the city is programmed, it has been visible for a long time – and the looming prospect is one of free fall as sources of fossil fuel become exhausted and living costs ultimately become unaffordable for increasing numbers of city dwellers. The first mega-cities in the established industrial societies are declining inexorably to the level of Third World cities, and taking ever larger sections of their populations with them. Yet it had been thought that the trend would be the other way round. The fossil mega-city is a concept of civilization which has no future; the global city is becoming a Fata Morgana for most cities and city dwellers.

So what affect has the fossil fuel system on this development? City dwellers are paying the direct and indirect costs of the system of fossil energy for constant fuel and electricity supply, heating and cooling systems and motor vehicles. In Germany the average annual spending on energy is more than 4,000 DM per head of population. This amount is not identical with the energy bill paid by the individual since the latter also includes a share of the energy costs for services used and for business activities. If the entire energy supply of a city comes from fossil fuel, this means that for a city of 1 million inhabitants alone around four billion DM leaves the urban economy every year. Added to this is a figure of 3,500 DM per head, i.e. a further three billion DM to cover food needs. In total this city with its one million inhabitants has to pay out seven and a half billion DM every year to import food and energy.

These running costs for fossil energy supply have to be recovered through value added in other urban sectors. This worked for a long time because the economic power in the cities that provided the added value evolved and offered enough gainful employment for the urban population. But once industry needs fewer and fewer people for its production or finds cheaper labour elsewhere, once the opportunities for adequate employment progressively vanish in the mega-cities and the unemployment rate rises to 20 % or more, the mega-city is exposed to a process of economic emaciation and impoverishment. Yet since, whatever happens, basic daily needs for food and energy have to be satisfied and then have to be imported into and financed in the city, they become increasingly difficult to secure. The potential consequence is inner-city destitution.

It is thus clear where the future of the city must lie – not the global city but the solar city must be the modernisation concept. The source of energy supply must be brought back to the city, not least in order to make the cities inhabitable again. “City air liberates you” was the saying for many decades when the cities of the rising industrial societies offered a wealth of new opportunities for living and advancement. Solar power as a source of free energy offers freedom from individual and economic dependencies. It offers freedom from constant energy bills and makes it easier for individuals to satisfy their own basic necessities of daily life. These are food, energy supply, shelter and the possibility of participating in cultural life. The solar city reinforces economic power by the amount of renewable energy provided in the city itself.

Just how topical this idea is can be seen by the fact that the proportion of food produced by individuals in large cities is continually rising, even in industrialised nations, as more and more people are able to cut their living costs in this way. It is not only in big cities in the Third World that “urban farming” is common. There are examples from the Third World that show that double as much income is generated by inner-city farming as from minimum-wage jobs. In Russia it is probable that many millions of people would have starved to death in the big cities if they had not grown their own food. But even in the USA urban farming increased by 17 % in the 80s. Naturally this is not possible in all big cities because self-sufficiency faces limits to cultivation. But the trend indicates the extent to which urban development is increasingly dependent on people being able to provide their own primary goods. For future development this signals how essential it will become again for agricultural businesses to be located in the environs of cities.

The scope for direct self-supply of energy even in mega-cities is far greater than can be the case for food. Solar power alone can provide the means – there is even the possibility that solar power may provide all the energy needs of mega-cities and the supply of food produced primarily in the locality, a possibility that is predicated on a complete change in the agricultural structure and market order. These are the fundamental preconditions for a regeneration process in the cities.

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