Are subterranean battles holding back sustainable cities?

I was absolutely fascinated to learn that the world’s first coal power station at the Holborn viaduct was sited where it was because at the time only the gas companies were allowed to dig in the road! The Holborn viaduct provided culverts that Thomas Edison could use to get his power to the 18 street slights without having to dig and thus he avoided the need to challenge the monopoly the towns gas companies had at the time.

It is fascinating to think of Thomas Edison with his technology that would change the entire world being thwarted by local rules and regulations in the centre of London – even though he had something truly revolutionary he couldn’t get it out without finding ways to circumnavigate the existing regulations and monopolies.

Walking around our cities if you take a moment to look down you can often see a multi-coloured marking showing the location of utilities . These can often highlight just how congested everything has got. Some utilities have legal rights to in the highway – often causing traffic chaos at the same time! Whilst other technologies don’t enjoy such protection and support. Low Carbon Heat Networks for example get none of the regulatory assistance that gas networks do.

In all future energy pathways the utilities in the ground are going to have to change. With power demand going up (to deliver energy for heating and electric vehicles) cable size is likely to increase, as cities grow more sewage and water capacity will be required. The new utility in town ‘heat networks’ with large insulated pipes will be jostling for space.

As we develop new technologies for cities we need to consider how the incumbent technologies often have the cards loaded in their favour. With legal protection and statutory rights (as well as long established assets) it can be difficult for new technologies to get a look in. Just as Thomas Edison found by in 1882 the environment favoured the status quo over a technology that would ultimately change the world.

To achieve the great energy transition, we are going to have to make some tough calls about what gets priority in the ground and how utilities can work together to make the best use of limited space. This will require collaboration, improved regulation and strong leadership to support technologies capable for delivering the low carbon cities to which we rightly aspire.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry – giving him a front-row seat on the energy roller-coaster. He began his career constructing oil refineries before moving to work across fossil and renewable electricity generation. More recently John has been leading the growth of decentralised energy and district heating.

John is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Energy Institute and has an MBA in Global Energy. John regularly writes and speaks about the future of energy. He lives in Bath in the United Kingdom.

John is author of the book ‘The Future of Energy’ which is available from Amazon. UK, US

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