Urban Form, Behavior Energy Modeling in China: Sim City for Real?

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One of the great challenges in urban planning and green building has been material life cycle energy use–how steel, concrete and wood products are produced and transported. Add to that the decisions people make once construction is finished, and you can rightly conclude that development standards have only scratched the veneer of total energy and sustainability impacts.

In addition to material climate and resource burdens, there are myriad consequences on life-cycle energy use that arise from commuting and transit choices, food and product consumption, and building heating or cooling.

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have devised a tool that may soon provide governments and urban planners ways with which to model complete material, building and residents’ anticipated energy use.

After a proof of concept was applied to a Jinan, China, housing development, LBNL has integrated building life-cycle assessment (LCA) and urban form agent-based modeling tools to capture embodied, operational and behavioral aspects of urban form energy use and emissions.

With hundreds of new cities being planned or built in China, Indonesia and India, new tools such as LBNL’s will be critical in managing and reducing the energy, climate and environmental impacts of this unprecedented urban growth era.

Adding 1.1 billion people to new or growing Asian cities will produce more than half of the world’s increase in global climate change-causing greenhouse gases by 2027, according to the Asian Development Bank.

I met last week in the green hills of Berkeley with David Fridley, Nate Aden and Yining Qin at LBNL’s China Energy Group offices. The team demoed their new urban form and behavior energy analysis tool, describing how they based its performance on a variety of existing approaches in urban form-related analysis and life-cycle materials analysis.

The innovative aspect to the group’s project is that they combined these existing cutting-edge approaches with an extensive survey of 230 residental households in the Lu Jing Superblock.
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The researchers examined where Lu Jing Superblock (built in 2008) residents worked and went to school, how they commuted, where they shopped, what kinds of appliances they owned and how they used them, and even how much meat and what kind of products they ate.

The result was perhaps the closest-yet attempt at modeling and thus being able to forecast the complete energy needs of a segment of urban population. This allows an integrated assessment of required energy supply and expected impacts far beyond a single structure, energy type or industry.

It’s like Sim City, but for addressing real planning, energy, and environmental challenges, which is something I’ve always wanted to see.

Simulations ran through the four seasons, showing cumulative energy use based on household and individual appliance and transportation use, showing cars or buses shuttling between supermarkets, offices, schools and the Lu Jing Superblock.

Total energy use and types of energy used were continually graphed, and the final results showed a breakdown between how much energy would be used by the buildings for power, cooling and heating,  as well as for transportation, food and other areas.

The group sees the tool being used by policymakers trying to prioritize energy and climate regulations in land use, transportation, planning and energy. Urban planners are another obvious group of potential end users.

One planning issue unresolved for future iterations of the tool would be how water use and supply could be added to the analytical capabilities. Or perhaps LBNL’s energy tool can be combined with a software-based supply analysis and use forecasting tool for water. Water life-cycle analysis is an especially relevant issue when planning development in areas of India and Northern China that are facing climate-related drought and water supply shortages.

Still, the LBNL effort is significant in synthesizing existing tools and approaches on urban energy use into a single model that can help guide our world as we move into what is increasingly becoming the century of urbanization.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
author
of
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post
Carbon
Institute
.  

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Massive Rangeland Carbon Sequestration Opportunities May Hinge on Urban Compost

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There’s carbon in them thar roots!

Just as San Francisco has made commercial and residential composting mandatory and other cities are considering doing so, a worldchanging application for using compost to dramatically increase carbon sequestration in suburban grasslands has been confirmed by the Marin Carbon Project.

Soil carbon sequestration is the process of moving greenhouse-gas causing CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil. After the ocean, soil is the second largest pool of carbon on the planet, with twice the amount of carbon that is in the atmosphere, according to Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist and professor at University of California at Berkeley.

“Healthy grasslands, which make up 30% of global land and 50% of land in California, put a lot of carbon into roots to lock in nutrients,” Silver said. The Marin Carbon Project’s research is focused on how to increase that natural carbon sequestering process, or restore it, in the case of damaged rangelands.

Silver and others presented the results of research last night that the Marin Carbon Project has been conducting at about two dozen sites in rural West Marin County, about 45 miles north of San Francisco.

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The Marin Carbon Project is a collaborative research effort between the University of California, the USDA, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and Marin Organic (the nation’s first county-wide organic label) and The Nicasio Native Grass Ranch.

The project, which is about a year into a three to five-year process, has determined that an increase of 1 metric ton of carbon sequestration per hectare on 50% of California’s managed rangelands could sequester 42 million additional metric tons (MMT) of carbon. This is slightly more than 41 MMT of carbon emissions from the California commercial and residential sector’s energy use. This increase in carbon sequestration would also offset the 14 MMT of greenhouse gasses produced by livestock.

In order to make our grasslands and grazing lands better carbon sinks, Silver said, “we need to add compost and manure to the soils to help it sequester.”

The Marin Carbon project has tested both manure and compost applications throughout dairy ranches, and while are both are effective at soil carbon enrichment, compost is preferred because it is less likely to contaminate land or watersheds, as improperly applied manure can.

Silver said researcher found that the ability of grassland soil to sequester carbon is not correlated with climate or soil type, but rather is directly related to how grasslands and rangelands are maintained. When trees and shrubs are left in grassland areas, for instance, there is 30% extra carbon sequestration.

Adding compost or manure also greatly increases soil carbon sequestration. “The test plots we added compost to retained over 90% of carbon that was added with no significant increase of methane or nitrogen oxides (two other potent greenhouse gases).” Tilling soil, on the other hand, has a negative impact on carbon sequestration, which doesn’t bode well for industrial agriculture (which also uses petroleum-based fertilizers as soils inputs) and corn-fed feedlot operations.

The test data from the Marin Carbon Project can now be applied to a more extensive life-cycle and economic analyses. This means that other factors will have to be analyzed such as the total carbon and methane produced by livestock, combined with calculating the greenhouse gases that would have been produced if compost were sent to the landfill.

Other locations performing extensive soil carbon sequestration agricultural and rangeland research include New South Wales in Australia and Barritskov, Denmark.

Despite the lack of discussion in Copenhagen on agriculture and food production in relationship to climate change, the results are encouraging for combatting global change through specific actions in organic agriculture and sustainable food production that benefit regional economies.

San Francisco and other urban areas can use their food scraps to not only enrich their region’s agriculture, grazing and dairy production–which strengthens the link between urban and rural food systems–but they can directly offset their carbon footprints. 

The early results from the Marin Carbon Project show that metro-area greenbelts and farming lands now have even greater intrinsic value.

This makes the case even more compelling for containing exurban sprawl around our cities and building smarter and denser communities. By all accounts, increasing protection and stewardship of regional natural resources has benefits that are far greater than most ever knew.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
      
 

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