Distributed infrastructure | Michael Green

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Distributed infrastructure

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Will our poles and pipes lead down the road, not out of town?

FOR generations, our essential services have come from afar. In cities, especially, our electricity, gas and water arrive from elsewhere and our waste goes away.

But it won’t necessarily stay that way.

Last month, at the Thriving Neighbourhoods conference held at the Melbourne exhibition centre, post-graduate students and industry types collaborated in a workshop on “decentralised district infrastructure”.

This was the scenario: what if E-Gate – the wedge of land between Docklands and North Melbourne station – was developed as a sustainable precinct? How could it generate electricity, treat wastewater, retain stormwater and deal with rubbish?

Peter Steele, from Moreland Energy Foundation, led the discussion on infrastructure. He says a big shift has already begun.

“At its most basic level, solar panels and water tanks are forms of decentralised infrastructure, and installations are taking off,” he says.

Illustration by Robin Cowcher

For a large-scale example, Mr Steele points to Hammarby Sjöstad, in Stockholm, Sweden. Its re-development began the late 1990s, when the inner-city land was converted from an industrial shantytown.

“They looked at the infrastructure as a sort of ecology, assessing the inputs and outputs and how they could be reused locally,” he says.

All the heating and cooling for the precinct, which is home to 26,000 people, comes from solar panels and heat extracted from waste treatment. Biogas captured from sewage is used to power local buses, and treated “sludge” is used as a fertiliser.

Mr Steele says we’re lagging behind Europe, but there’s potential to cut carbon emissions quickly and deeply by matching the needs of different buildings: say, heating a pool and powering nearby office blocks.

One way to do that is gas-fired cogeneration or trigeneration – producing heating, cooling and power together. “It makes sense for buildings to share infrastructure that provides their needs more efficiently and with a far lower carbon footprint,” he says.

“A lot of people question whether cogeneration is locking us into another fossil fuel. But it also has the potential to be used with renewables, such as biomass and biofuels.”

Tosh Szatow, from power services business Energy for the People, says much of our established infrastructure is getting old. “It’s time to overhaul it, but gee that’s going to be really expensive. Is there a better way?”

Mr Szatow was a co-author of CSIRO’s Intelligent Grid report, which assessed the prospects for distributed energy in Australia. He says the change will come first to new suburbs and infill developments, such as E-Gate.

“Cost is a big driver for doing it differently. And carbon emissions are part of that cost. Our system is premised on coal and gas being cheap, and it being okay to burn them. Now those premises are questioned we have to find alternatives,” he says.

He’s tipping a future where our low-density suburbs are off the electricity grid (courtesy of solar power and battery storage) and our high-density zones plug into large-scale renewables.

What would the neighbourhood look like? “It could be solar panels on the roofs, battery banks on the streets, local food gardens, and water catchments or waste management wetlands down the road,” he says.

But it won’t just happen – Mr Szatow says householders must demand change from governments and utilities, join community energy groups and install renewables at home. “We don’t have to sit around and wait for change; we can be active in bringing it about.”

Read this article at The Age online

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