Urban energy policy design

27 June 2012

Copyright: GraphicObsession

Over 60 per cent of global energy demand is consumed in cities, where roughly half of the world’s population lives. Moreover, the urban population is expected to continue increasing rapidly due to growing urbanisation in emerging economies and developing countries, putting cities at the centre of the sustainable energy challenge.

Cities can play an important role in the application of sustainable solutions, especially if city planners learn to identify policy opportunities for reducing their consumption of energy and better exploiting their capacity to generate energy.

Policy to ensure reliable energy supply and sustainable energy generation will generally be designed and implemented at the local level. But the impacts of national and regional policies on the overall urban policy package must also be considered, as they will drive energy consumption and generation at the city level. Energy policies should therefore strive to create an effective link between national, regional, and local needs. Several of the most important areas to address include city planning policies, building energy efficiency policies, transportation policies, and energy generation, distribution and delivery policies.

Impact analyses of such policy areas should also employ a cross-sectoral approach. The link between energy and transport for example is apparent, but less obvious interdependencies can also be important, such as the interplay of energy policies with waste and water management.

Policy-makers should include energy demand and generation requirements in the early stages of city planning policy design. A holistic approach is necessary, where not only traditional technology, but also passive solutions are considered. For example, this could include taking into account the local climate in city planning policies, in order for buildings to benefit or be protected from solar gains.

The nature of the energy sustainability challenge will require a range of solutions to promote strong cities, while reducing CO2 emissions and dependence on traditional external energy sources.

Urban Policy Package

City planning

City planning is a major policy driver of sustainable energy generation. It is therefore essential that city officials ensure that city planning accommodates various other policy goals, since it determines the urban density and establishes residential, non-residential, and mixed zoning. These decisions can have a direct impact on building heating and cooling needs, the cost effectiveness of public transport, and the vulnerability of the built environment to extreme weather conditions. Overall energy demand and supply needs can thus be reduced by design as much as by technology.

Buildings’ energy efficiency

The buildings sector is the primary energy consuming sector at the city level. Energy efficiency policies for this sector should therefore be developed early on in the design of urban policy packages. These policy packages should include building energy codes and energy labelling schemes that aim to reduce the energy demand of both new and existing buildings, without compromising comfort levels. When implemented effectively, building energy codes can ensure the deployment of energy efficient technologies and reduce the risk of blackouts during extreme weather conditions. Energy efficient buildings often yield greater year-round comfort levels, which in turn can be a low-cost means to provide health benefits for its occupants. Reducing energy demand will lower pollution levels by cutting unnecessary power generation, and reduce urban heat island effects.


Transport is the second energy consuming sector at the city level, and should similarly be considered early on in urban policy design. Transport policy to reduce energy consumption might include the implementation of efficient, high quality and safe public transport systems; schemes to discourage the use of personal vehicles, such as road pricing or driving and parking restrictions; and policies that turn multi-modal trips into seamless journeys, such as car-sharing and employee transport plans. Provision of infrastructure to support more and safer non-motorised travel (such as cycling lanes and better footpaths) can also play an important role. Such policies not only reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, but also bring substantial improvement in other environmental externalities, such as local air quality and noise. Mixing shopping and work areas with residential areas can also save energy by reducing the average distances city dwellers need to travel on a normal day.

Energy generation

Sustainable city-level energy generation policies should include plans for electricity and heat generation through local renewable energy sources. Cities should thus aim to be centres for energy and heat generation, where technically feasible and economically viable. These efforts should be concurrently supported by city planning and building energy policies, in combination with waste and water management programmes. Energy generation should be part of an integrated approach that includes energy distribution and delivery, and that can help to increase on-site renewable generation and the overall share of renewable energy. Such an integrated approach is not new. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, several cities around the world have implemented it. The approach was illustrated by the Hammarby (Stockholm) eco-cycle model.

Energy distribution and delivery

Policy-makers should consider smart grids, distribution management, and end-user energy delivery at the early stages of urban policy formation. Investing in smart grids can improve demand response, delivery of energy efficiency, integration of variable renewable resources, and enable electric vehicle recharging services. Such grids also smooth demand peaks and stabilise the electricity system, helping to deliver effective energy savings.

Capacity building, transparency and stakeholder involvement

In order to achieve effective implementation, resources should be secured for local capacity building and energy awareness programmes. As cities can benefit greatly from sustainable energy generation, it is important that they lead by example. Public buildings should be energy efficient and use renewable energy where possible; and local authorities should include the purchase of energy efficient products and goods in their procurement rules. Cities should also be mindful of transparency, and include all stakeholders and interested parties from the early stages of urban policy package design. Both stakeholder involvement and transparency are key to successful acceptance and implementation of such policies.

Towards a sustainable future, inside and outside cities

In the end, city planning – including buildings, public transport, energy supply, waste and water management – is about human well-being. Efforts should not focus merely on statistics or technology, but also be mindful of beautification and quality of life. Urban greenery programmes, for example, can increase quality of life while decreasing heatisland effects. This type of common-sense, win-win solution is typical of good local, integrated policy planning. Even if national policy takes the limelight, the real impact of energy policy will first be local. And given the importance of cities within the wider energy equation, addressing their particular needs in a sustainable, intelligent and efficient manner also enhances national energy security. Cities lie at the centre of the energy challenge; making sound urban policy is key to the solution.

Urban energy policy design


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