Renewable energy is coming fast. Australian planners are struggling to keep up

A wind farm in South Australia. Image: Getty.

Renewable energy is driving profound changes in cities. It’s happening much more quickly than was expected even five years ago. Responding to climate change, networks of decision-makers, such as the C40 collective of major cities, have begun adopting strategies to promote the uptake of renewable energy. Yet land use planning has seemingly begun to lag behind.

As an example, few, if any, planning codes in Australia prevent overshadowing of rooftop solar systems (photovoltaic and hot water). Instead, disputes are being decided in the courts.

Effective guidance on the retrofitting and redesign of built environment energy systems must occur across scales, from rooftops to wider electricity grids. We need reliable institutional and policy guidelines to improve investment certainty and limit negative outcomes.

So what is the role of planning? What challenges and actions must planners consider for the renewable energy transition to be effective?


Renewable are proliferating

Historically, cities have been built on fossil fuels. These power buildings, lighting, transport, air conditioning, water supply systems, sewage treatment and more.

Technological change and concerns about climate change threats, energy security, air pollution reduction and fossil fuel power costs have recently driven huge advancements in renewable energy options for cities. As renewables rapidly gain market traction, the costs are falling dramatically relative to fossil fuel options.

Many different types of renewable energy have the potential to radically transform built environments. These include solar (both photovoltaic and molten salt), wind, tidal, biogas, biofuel, pumped hydro and potentially even nuclear fusion – though the latter may still be some time away.

At present, this technological growth appears to be outpacing land-use planning systems, and many planners seem to be fighting a rear-guard action.

What role can planners play?

Traditionally, planners have assessed the acceptability, or otherwise, of different types of development. Land uses that were deemed incompatible were separated into different zones. Infrastructural and technological provisions associated with developments are usually strategically planned in advance. Site-specific issues are then assessed through development approval processes.

There are, however, still relatively few land use planning policies and guidelines for engaging effectively with renewable energy. This is a global problem, though some jurisdictions are ahead of others.

A front-runner is the UK, where the Department for Communities & Local Government issued planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy in 2013. This was a welcome early response. And perhaps surprising, given the comparative lack of sunlight in the UK.

Conversely, Ireland still lacks a strategic plan for solar farm development. This seems remiss given Ireland has an almost identical planning system and roughly the same amount of sunlight as the UK.

In sunnier Australia, the signs are that things are beginning to change. For example, the New South Wales government recently issued guidelines on the approval of solar and wind farms. Queensland has a wind farm state code and guidelines. The City of Melbourne now provides planning guidance for solar energy.

California is forging ahead with solar leasing and is experimenting with mandatory solar for new buildings. The state is also making strides in wind energy.

How should planning systems adapt?

We urgently need more renewable-friendly planning systems to capture its potential benefits and avoid overshooting the 2°C target for global warming. This will mean finding ways to “fast-track” energy generation deemed to be low risk with manageable impacts.

As well as developing practical guidance, planners need to ask some key questions. Are these technologies safe? Might they disrupt other land uses? Does large-scale uptake potentially have unintended consequences?

An easy win for planners is to devise codes and planning scheme provisions to protect rooftop solar installations from overshadowing. Rooftop solar is becoming an integral part of the energy mix in many areas, with surplus production often feeding back into the grid.

A failure of planning to manage a simple issue like overshadowing will result in a loss of potential electricity production, with negative implications for householders and grids.

Medium-scale commercial solar PV farms, providing 1-10MW generating capacity, are likely soon to be a common feature of many suburbs and communities. However, these facilities can present challenges when placed in urban areas. Again, clear planning guidance is needed.

The planning implications of these solar PV farms are only beginning to be understood. The issues include, but are not limited to, site selection, (re)zoning, stakeholder engagement, visual impact minimisation and mediating social, economic and/or ecological constraints.

Suburbs could increasingly be home to medium-scale solar farms like this. Image: Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr/creative commons.

Even as planners begin to engage with the issues of current renewable technologies, newer technologies are quickly encroaching. This adds to the urgency of the planning challenges; constant reappraisal is needed.

Where to next?

Soon we will likely have to better consider emerging technologies such as solar windows, integrated solar roofs, backyard biogas generators and even algae biofuel farming.

For example, could using backyard waste-to-biogas systems create issues with hygiene and infectious disease? What about maintenance? Will microgrids, which can help transitions to a grid with significant volumes of renewable energy, be able to handle demand?

The ConversationWe’ll need effective land use planning to answer these questions and many more. In times of intense transformation, planners will have to provide clear guidance. They must not let themselves fall behind the pace of urban energy transitions.

Tony Matthews is a lecturer in urban and environmental planning, and Jason Byrne an associate professor of environmental planning, at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.