The holy grail: Full transparent window and solar panel at the same time

Buildings account for 40% of the global energy use. As a consequence, the mass realisation of net zero-energy buildings (NZEBs) is top priority for urban developers. therefore the integration of photovoltaics (BIPV) in the billions of windows is a top challenge that seems to be realized.

Promising steps

At first sight, harvesting energy from sunlight and maintaining full-transparency seem incompatible. Photovoltaics use ambient light at the same frequencies the human eye can see, and efforts to increase the efficiency of sun panels are at odds with maintaining transparency.

The past 10 years researchers at MIT, UCLA, Michigan State University and several other institutions – Delft Technical University among them – have made progress in bridging both objectives[1]

Until to date Luminescent Solar Concentratorsare the most promising technology to combine harvesting electricity and transparency[2].

Luminescent solar concentrators catch both diffused and direct solar radiation. The light penetrates a so-called waveguide, a polymeric or glassy optical plate or thin film coated with luminescent materials.  Within the waveguide the light is moving sideways. It is absorbed and turned into electricity by narrow strips of photovoltaic cells, which are either sporadically embedded in the plate or placed at the plate’s ends.

The efficiency of the process depends largely from the chromophores, the particles in the luminescent coating that have to catch as much light as possible. At the same time, these particles need to change the wavelength of the light in order to prevent other particles absorbing the light again on its way to the photovoltaic cells in the periphery of the window. For the time being, the effectiveness of this process is at the expense of the transparency of the window. With other words, the more electricity is harvested, the less transparent the window is. Nevertheless, the results so far already are commercialized successfully[3]. A few examples:

5575 m2skylight with 20% transparency in former Bell Building by Onyx Solar

Onyx Solar

Onyx solar is a global company (Spanish by origin) that is developing and producing energy harvesting glass panes for construction and retrofitting purposes[4]. Onyx Solar offers fully glass panels in stunning designs and in in specific colors, shapes and transparency (title picture). The company is able to trade off different degrees of transparency and color with different degrees of harvesting electricity. For instance, its most transparent panels (XL Vision) combine a transparency of 30% with a peak power of 28 watt (m2)[5]. This is about 25% of the output of ‘regular’ thin film solar panels[6].

Physee

Physee

Physee is a startup from Delft Technical University in the Netherlands[7]. During the 2017 World Economic Forum, the company was called ‘technology pioneer’. Its flagship product is the Power Window, which surpasses the transparency of Onyx’s windows, but – not by surprise – has a lower electricity generating capacity: 8 – 10 watt (m2)[8]. The company deploys thulium, a rare earth metal on the waveguide, together with a CIGS PV-cell strip attached to one glass-edge[9]. Currently, a few companies are deploying Power Windowsto support the development of this ambitious B-company.

The transparency of ClearView

Is a break-through underway?

A couple of years ago, a team directed by Richard Lunt of Michigan State University, took a different approach[10]. The principle behind it resembles that of the LSC discussed above. The concentrator also is a thin layer of material that can be placed on windows, phone screens or any flat, clear surface.  Its thickness is less than 1/1,000th of a millimeter, and it is virtually indistinguishable from glass. This layer captures the photons of ultraviolet and infrared light while allowing the photons of visible light to pass through. For this reason, the result is exceptionally transparent to the human eye. 

This technology is called ClearView power. The short video below is disclosing some technical details of this technology.

Ubiquitous Energy

In an effort to commercialize transparent solar technology Lunt founded the company Ubiquitous Energy[11], which is currently in the rolling out its first windows/panels for commercial use. I couldn’t find information about the window’s electricity generating power at this time, except that the company announced that 50 watt (m2) is feasible.

Meanwhile…..

architects and urbanists might follow the example of theInternational School in Copenhagen[12]that covered 6000 mof its walls with green solar panels to produce more then 50% of its electricity and also to contribute significantly to the building’s aesthetic.


[1]http://www.glasstopower.com/g2p/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Luminescent_solar_concentrators_Brovelli.pdf

[2]J.W.E. Wiegman, E. van der Kolk, Building integrated thin film luminescent solar concentrators: detailed efficiency characterization and light transport modelling, Solar Energy Materials & Solar Cells 103 (2012) 41-47.

[3]https://www.business.com/articles/transparent-solar-windows-construction/

[4]https://www.onyxsolar.com/projects

[5]https://www.onyxsolar.com/product-services/technical-specifications

[6]The bottom of this sector of the Onyx Solar website compares in a visual way the levels of transparancy: https://www.onyxsolar.com/product-services/amorphous-pv-glass

[7]http://www.physee.eu/products#powerwindow

[8]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/5871/energie-opwekken/zonne-energie/30-vierkante-meter-delftse-zonneramen-rabobank-eindhoven/

[9]The applicability of thulium has been studied by Lisset Manzano Chávez, in her master theses Optimization of a Luminescent Solar Concentrator: Simulation and application in PowerWindow designat the Delft University of Technology.

[10]The principles behind this process are disclosed in a paper titled ‘Emergence of highly transparent photovoltaics for distributed applications’, published in Nature Research (2017)

[11]http://ubiquitous.energy

[12]https://inhabitat.com/this-danish-school-is-completely-covered-with-over-12000-sea-green-solar-panels/

Amsterdam: Heading for a circular economy

Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

Possibly, in 2050 the word wastecan be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence, that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are skeptical of the outcomes of this agreements. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation, but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Planhas yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling: The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits. The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed 

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones. Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can scrutinized from four angles:

  • The reduction of the use of materials, water and energy
  • The degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.
  • The sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.
  • Sensible management, for example a full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment. 

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, the Zuidas (all residential buildings) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling. 

Crossover – photo Zwartlicht 

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building. This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components. 

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.


[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html

Digital technology eats politics for breakfast.

This short essay is looking for an answer to the question “Does technology develop autonomously or can society be in control?

This issue takes a central position in two thought-provoking books to be discussed below [1].

The first book is Radical Technologies, written by Adam Greenfield (Verso, 2017). The second one is A New Digital Dealby Bas Boorsma (Rainmaking Publications, 2017). Both authors have been involved in the development of smart cities for many years. Bas Boorsma among others in various global and regional roles in Cisco. Adam Greenfield – also author of Against the Smart City[2]has been working among others as an information architect for Nokia. Nowadays he is teaching at London School of Economics. Both books go beyond smart cities and focus on the role of digitalization in society.

Setting the stage

Bas Boorsma has a strong belief in the – until now only partially realized – potential of digital technology. Adam Greenfield refuses to discuss any such hypothetical value. He refers at Stafford Beer’s famous phrase The purpose of a system is what it doesand that is the colonization of the daily life by technology giants and near-monopolists like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, called ‘the Stacks’ and other big technology companies.

Digitalization

The essence of digitalization is restructuring economy and society with digital communication and infrastructures. According to Bas Boorsma, the network paradigm will replace centralist thinking by the development of many connected nodes, in society and in the digital world as well. The organisation of society and the principles behind the Internet will reinforce each other. 

Many expected digitalization to facilitate the emergence of a ‘true’ free market, i.e. an economy based on peer-to-peer principles, collaboration, with small enterprises relying of the network effect and digital tools to conduct business in ways previously reserved for large corporations (New Digital Deal, p.52). This is what initially happened indeed: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of ‘creative commons’ had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of ‘free market egalitarianism’(New Digital Deal, p.52).

Some already predicted the decline of capitalism.

Bas Boorsma

However, the network paradigm and the platform economy have been appropriated to a large extend by ‘the Stacks’ and other big companies. As a consequence, the workings of capitalism, revitalizing monopolism and oligarchy have been amplified. Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented(New Digital Deal, p.54). In this respect Bas Boorsma’s en Adam Greenfield’s visions do not divert much. 

A New Digital Deal

According to Bas Boorsma digitalization cannot be countered, but steering is needed and feasible. He applies the analogy of a skillfully steered canoe sailing an incredible fast-flowing river, harvesting its energy. A New Digital deal must steer the further development and impact of digitalization to deliver on its promise in full, and we have to do this in a moral context… (New Digital Deal, p.42). In order to deploy digitalization and to manage platforms for the greater good of the individual and society as a whole, new regulatory approaches will be required… (New Digital Deal, p.46). This has to enable us to manage technological growth, regulate platforms, celebrate recalibrated free market principles, prepare for the emergence of new and better jobs, harvest digitalization generated wealth… and to tax wealth and platform rather than labor(New Digital Deal, p.65).

Thus the New Digital Deal requires strong regulatory power to bridge the tension between at one side the initial expectations and hopes for a post-capitalist society, dominated by many connected small actors and at the other side the appropriation of the digitalization and the platform-economy by ‘the Stacks’ and other companies. The question is what does this regulatory power include. 

Bas Boorsma deals in depth with the societal impact of digitalization in domains like healthcare, education, transport, and energy. In each case he explores the content of the New Digital Deal. In the meantime I searched in vain for the answer to the question about the regulation of free markets and growing monopolism of ‘the Stacks’. The answer to this question is particularly important because it is exactly the unrestricted growth of monopolism that feeds Adam Greenfield’s deep pessimism with respect to the societal benefits of digitalisation. Adam Greenfield does not answer this question either, presumably because there is no answer. Still, I think there is one.

The vanity of a digital paradise

Adam Greenfield

Before returning to the New Digital Deal, I go deeper into the reason of Adam Greenfield’s pessimism. In consecutive chapters of his book he unveils how big companies – sometimes in cooperation with the state – have taken possession of digital technologies: Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network and retained for inspection (Radical Technologies, p.5). This because of the combined effect of smartphones, sensors, security cameras, ‘wearables’ – like Hitatchi’s Business Microscope – and the fast increasing capabilities of the algorithmic production of knowledge. 

Was blockchain technology intended as the foundation for newly to develop decentralized peer-to peer distributed organizations, is it actually captured by large companies. They embrace it as a fundamentally improved entrusted framework for identity and data sharing (contracts and databases). 

However truly transformative circumstances will arise not from any one technology standing alone, but from multiple technical capabilities woven together in combination (Radical technologies, p.273). Again ‘the Stacks’ will benefit most. Their innovation capacity is larger than any other company and their cash is unlimited. They are turning the entire planetary-scale entrepreneurial community into a vast distributive R&D lab… At any given moment there are thousands of startups busily exploring the edges of technological possibility, and shouldering all the risk of involved in doing so. (Radical Technologies, p.281) By focusing on the development of ‘minimum viable products’ they anticipate to be taken over by one of ‘the Stacks’ or other technology companies and cash the millions these companies offer. The start-up community is more vital than ever before but is nothing like the decentralized occupants of the nodes of the network on the eve of a new liberalized order. In stead they support the dominance of ‘the Stacks’. 

The failing of politics

The influence of politics – other then incidental support – in western countries with respect to the growing power of ‘the Stacks’ is negligible. Maybe with the exception of the European Union that is entangled in rearguard actions by fining some eye-catching forms of monopolism. In contrast, the Chinese gouvernment is molding technology to its own aims, albeit not in an exemplary way. Supported by China’s own ‘Stacks’ – among them Alibaba and Baihe – the government is integrating smartphones, wearables and social networking services to establish the degree of ‘social credit’ of all of its citizens.

I expect a negative answer from Adam Greenfield to the question whether technological development is an autonomous force like the fast-floating river in Bas Boorsma’s analogy. In the USA large-scale scientific programs supervised by state-institutions like the legendary DARPA enabled major technological development. This carefully planned process resulted not only in the nuclear bomb but also in the discovery of all components of the later iPhone, which initial development – by the way – has been subsidized by the state too, as has been disclosed in detail by Mariana Mazzocato[3].Nowadays the development of technology and its impact on employment is predominantly instigated by strategic choices made by ‘the Stacks’ and other technological companies.

As a consequence, any ‘deal’ regarding steering technological development or safeguarding the interest of citizens and society at large will have to target ‘the Stacks’.

The New Digital Deal revisited

This brings us back to the New Digital Deal. Targeting ‘the Stacks’ has to be preceded by decisive lawmaking at national or supranational level with respect to the aim and the conditions of digitalization for the purpose of society at large. Referring at Bas Boorsma the aim is enabling a networked and connected society with thriving activity in all nodes and free markets in between. A far from complete – list of conditions includes:

  • A strong and enforced anti-trust policy.
  • The discouragement of acquisitions in favor of collaboration within networks.
  • Unbundling heterogeneous conglomerates of companies (‘to big to fail’).  
  • Governance guidelines discouraging short-termism, the stock markets included.
  • Considerable taxes on profits, which might be released by participation in state-coordinated research programs together with universities and other stakeholders.
  • A basic-income combined with the right at paid work for adult citizens.

An emerging digital community

I seriously doubt the ability of the bitterly divided European states to settle conditions as mentioned above in the near future. Meanwhile my expectations of lower level governments – cities in particular – are higher. At this level, high and low tech digital tools might be applied and enabled to prove their value in relation to challenges as traffic, healthy air, sustainable energy and safety. Bas Boorsma’s 20 building blocks of community digitalization will prove their value here. Each of these building blocks is actionable. The ‘community digitalization’ approach puts citizen’s needs and wants in the center and their fulfillment will come from a network of stakeholders. The local government can be held responsible for robust connectivity and digital safety and also for interoperability and the deployment of non-proprietary protocols. 

Somewhere at an undetermined but eagerly awaited moment in the future a world of collaborating cities might force states to take their responsibility and issue the laws that are necessary to establish a New Digital Deal. 

Did your appetite grown?

Start reading both books! Those who are attuned to practical solutions better start with Adam Greenfield’s because his well-documented approach to technology definitely will put practice in a new light. Also his way of phrasing is excellent. Readers with a more academic mind-set are advised to start with Boorsma’s book, because his life-long experience will be helpful in making theory actionable. And that is where many of us are waiting for.


[1] The title of this short essay is inspired by the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. This post has been published before at Smart City Hub.

[2]https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18626431-against-the-smart-city

[3]https://wp.me/p32hqY-6p

Hydrogen: Smart but as yet a promise for the future

Recently, Amsterdam[1] published its plan for the energy transition. The obvious conclusion is that the town, like other towns[2], need a lot of hot water for district heating from as yet unknown underground sources and a decuple supply of wind and solar energy. Looking for other supplies, the idea of hydrogen soon comes up.

Looking for other supplies of energy, the idea of hydrogen soon comes up.

Before answering the question about the feasibility of hydrogen as an additional source of heat and electricity, some characteristics of hydrogen have to be discussed.

Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen.

The process of electrolysis brings water into contact with electricity, resulting in oxygen and hydrogen. A 100% clean process, provided the use of energy from carbon-free sources. ‘Blue’ hydrogen occurs when the CO2released during the production of electricity is collected and stored. 

The storage of hydrogen is easy, particularly if conversed into ammonia. A kilo of hydrogen is producing the same amount of energy as a fully-fledged Tesla Power Wall. A tank with 60,000 m3of ammonia can deliver more than 200 million kilowatt hours. That is the annual production of 30 wind turbines on land. The problem with hydrogen is that 60% of energetic value is lost when electricity is used to make hydrogen and hydrogen is converted it into electricity again. Storing electricity in a battery yields only 5% loss of value.

Hydrogen plant in Rotterdam (blue containers) and the apartment complex (left center
) that will be heated with hydrogen. Photo: DNV GL

As a consequence, an obvious application of hydrogen is as a substitute for natural gas, which limits energy loss to 30%.

The Dutch grid operator Stedin will use green hydrogen gas to heat an apartment complex in Rotterdam. The hydrogen will be produced locally and transported via dedicated gas pipelines[3] (photo). An electric heat pump would have reduced energy use with 75%, given perfect isolation. Exactly to avoid the expenditures for isolation, housing corporations are considering hydrogen in older houses. However, the financial advantages of ‘green’ hydrogen, in the long run, have to be seen[4]. Eventually, heating on hydrogen will be reserved for historic city centres, where few alternatives are available.

But what if hydrogen will become much cheaper?  In the near future, the Gulf States will export cheap ‘green’ hydrogen converted into ammonia on a large scale. The production costs of solar energy in desert areas are considerably lower than in Europe, because the yield of solar panels and collectors is twice as large due to the high intensity of insulation[5]. The feasibility of this alternative depends on geopolitical considerations in the first place: Many Western countries will be reluctant to become dependent again from ‘former’ oil producing countries. However, the advantages are obvious.

Another attractive prospect is that hydrogen (ammonia) offer a new destination for a couple of brand new but already depreciated energy plants. In this respect, an experiment in the Magnum power plant at the Eemshaven is of great importance. NUON is investigating whether this type of power plants can be used in a flexible way for the production of electricity while deploying various types of low- or no-emission fuels like hydrogen. In times of a surplus of green electricity, these plants can be used to produce hydrogen. If there is a shortage of electricity, the power plant can convert imported cheap hydrogen into electricity. In the future, probably one of the gas-powered energy plants in Amsterdam will be deployed in the same way. 

e-Bike on hydrogen. The Alpha 2.0. Photo Pragma Industries

An also frequently mentioned application of hydrogen is transport[6]. In the meantime, for all forms of transport – even e-bikes[7]– hydrogen models are available. 

With the foregoing in mind, hydrogen as fuel for passenger cars – not to speak of bikes –  is quite odd[8]. Although the range is about 600 km and refueling is fast, the difference with electric cars is reducing fast. There are few car brands left that go for passenger cars on hydrogen; Toyota is one of these. The development of a hybrid car that runs on electricity with a battery that can be charged by a fuel cell while driving is noteworthy. Daimler is working on this, after having stopped the development of a fully hydrogen-powered passenger car recently.

For other means of transport, the verdict may be more positive[9]. The rule is, the larger the desired range and the heavier the load, the more the benefits of hydrogen equal or outweigh the advantages of batteries. Examples are buses, lorries, but also planes[10]and ships[11]. The province of Groningen and QBuzz, a regional transport company, are experimenting with buses on hydrogen. The 20 buses will run on the long routes. This in contrast with the rest of the fleet, which will become electric because loading can be fitted into the timetable. 

The conclusion is that the use of Dutch solar or wind energy for the production of hydrogen is costly and does not qualify mostly when electricity can be used directly[12]. The availability of cheap imported hydrogen might be a gamechanger. In the first place, it is a ‘green’ alternative for the use of natural gas particular in buildings or parts of the town where a high level of isolation is costly or infeasible at all. In the second place it is an excellent alternative for long-term energy storing probably in combination with depreciated gas-powered energy plants. Buses, trucks, trains, ships and planes might be a third application.


[1]MRA Warmte Koude – Grand Design 2.0: Handelingsperspectief en Analyse, september 2018 Metropoolregio Amsterdam

[2]https://www.nijmegen.nl/fileadmin/bestanden/bestuur/bestuursdossiers/Nijmegen-aardgasvrij/Warmtevisie-Nijmegen-2018-180626.pdf

[3]https://www.stedin.net/over-stedin/pers-en-media/persberichten/eerste-huizen-verwarmd-met-waterstof-komen-in-rotterdam-rozenburg

[4]https://www.berenschot.nl/actueel/2018/oktober/co2-neutrale-warmtenetten/

[5]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/5969/energie-opwekken/zonne-energie/zonnestroom-mexico-duikt-4-dollarcent-per-kilowattuur/

[6]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/30369/waterstof-toepassingen

[7]https://www.pragma-industries.com/products/light-mobility/

[8]https://medium.com/the-future-is-electric/hydrogen-still-has-some-potential-as-a-transportation-fuel-c693e8cdf375

[9]https://www.businessinsider.nl/zijn-waterstofautos-in-de-toekomst-onmisbaar-deskundigen-denken-van-wel-dit-is-waarom/

[10]https://www.hydrogenics.com/2015/10/15/hydrogenics-joins-german-h2fly-consortium-to-enable-zero-emission-passenger-flights-using-fuel-cell-technology/

[11]https://www.ship-technology.com/features/featureis-there-a-future-for-hydrogen-powered-ship-propulsion-5731545/

[12]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/15443/energie-beleid/tien-peperdure-misverstanden-over-wondermiddel-waterstof/

Energy storage: The missing link

Hornsdale Energy Reserve Australia – Photo TESLA

Many are convinced of the value of sustainable energy and the number of proponents continues to grow. Nor is energy storage an issue anymore. In this short essay, I discuss three different methods for storing energy[1]. 

A forth solution, storage in hydrogen, will be dealt with in a next article.

Storage in batteries

For the time being, Tesla has built the largest energy storage battery in the world in South Australia with a power of 100 megawatts and a storage capacity of 129 megawatt-hours[2]. The electricity comes from a local wind farm. The battery has immediately proven its value. In the event of a recent power outage, it restarted the supply of energy many times faster and without any problems for the users than the available gas turbines. Moreover, for a price that is 90% lower. It is very plausible that a storage system of sufficient size could have prevented the problems at Schiphol half a year ago due to a short-circuit in a Tennet cable[3].

Vattenfall uses 500 BMW i3 batteries for its energy storage project in Wales[4]. Their joint power is 22 megawatts and they are fed by of 76 wind turbines. They supply 13% of the electricity needs of all households in Wales annually.

The projects mentioned-above are examples of centralized storage facilities for large-scale delivery of renewable energy. The Amsterdam virtual power plant is a small-scale example[5]. Here 50 households produce electricity with solar panels, store them in-house and trade them if the price on the energy market is the most favorable. Tesla will do the same in Australia, but with 50,000 households[6]. The company is working on a huge virtual power plant. Each household has solar panels, with a power of 5 kilowatts and a Tesla Powerwall 2 battery with 13.5 kilowatt-hours capacity. The power of plant as a whole is 250 megawatts and its storage capacity 675 megawatt-hours.

Neighborhood battery – Photo DNV GL

Energy production and storage in the Netherlands will contain both large and small-scale elements. In the report Feasibility and scalability of the neighborhood battery, DNV GL investigates the contribution to the storage of energy in the Netherlands of small-scale energy storage systems, also known as neighborhood batteries[7]. Their construction is simple and the impact on the environment is limited. The concept of the neighborhood battery is well applicable in residential areas. It enables peer-to-peer exchange and trading of electricity.

The Amsterdam Energy Arena is an example of the application of a neighborhood battery. Its storage capacity is 3 megawatts[8]. Energy comes from 4200 solar panels on the roof of the stadium. This virtual power plant will supply power in the immediate vicinity and is also a buffer for the grid.

The grid of the Amsterdam Energy Arena – image Amsterdam Arena.

All projects that have been discussed up to now deploy Litihum (li’ion) batteries. The fast-growing demand makes lithium increasingly scarce and expensive. That is why alternatives are sought. One is the manganese-hydrogen battery[9], another the silicon battery[10]. The latter might have a storage capacity that is ten times larger than that of the li’ion battery. However, it will take years before both are on the market.

Test set-up heat storage in salt – Photo TNO

Heat storage in salt

The storage of heat is very simple. All you need is a block of salt of two cubic meters. This will provide enough energy to heat your home throughout the winter: Thermal solar collectors convert sunlight into heat. The heat causes a chemical reaction in the salt, resulting in its dehydration. Conversely, adding water to the dry salt releases heat. 

PhD student Pim Donkers (TU / e) investigated how that process works exactly and which salt you can use best[11]. The biggest problem was the degeneration of the salt, which gradually reduced its storage capacity. 

The Dutch research institute TNO has solved this problem by influencing the properties of the salt used[12]. The advantage is obvious; salt is cheap and widely available. TNO is collaborating with nine companies in eight European countries to develop this invention into a market-ready product within the framework of the European project CREATE. A demo house that is supplied with heat in this way will be open for the public in short notice. 

For several years, Marnix ten Kortenaar has been working on the development of the sea salt battery in his company Dr. Ten[13]. In all its simplicity, the principle is a container with dissolved sea salt and carbon electrodes. The Gridflex project is a pilot in the Dutch village of Heeten, deploying 25 salt batteries and that aims to create a local energy market[14]. The solar energy is generated, stored, traded and consumed completely locally. For this pilot, Energy cooperative Endona was granted exemption from the Dutch Electricity Act[15].  

A third example comes from the German company EWE that intends to use salt domes for the storage of electricity[16], based on the principle of the redox battery[17].

The largest redox battery in the world – Image EWE

The project is called brine4power. A positive and a negatively charged electrolyte form the basis for this ‘natural’ battery, starting from the ions of ordinary salt[18].

A test set-up is realized in containers. Their storage capacity will gradually be increased to 2500 kilowatt-hours. Next, the storage of the electrolytes in salt domes will be piloted . This trial will take place in Jemgum along the Ems, near Groningen. EWE now uses these domes for the storage of gas. In 2023 ultimately, the battery will consist of two salt domes with a volume of 100,000 m3 and a total storage capacity of 700 megawatt-hours. As far as is known yet, no harmful effects are attached to this form of sustainable energy management. 

Energy storage with water 

Plan Lievense 1981 – Drawing brothers Das 

One of the oldest and still most common way of storing energy is pumping water to reservoirs with the help of surplus electricity. In times of energy scarcity, this water is used to generate hydro-energy. In the early 1980s, Luc Lievense designed a number of applications for this principle that could be used by the Netherlands[19]: Artificial lakes in the Markerwaard and even in the North Sea varying in height from a few ten to hundred (!), meters. 

It soon became clear that maintaining one or two conventional power plants for peak capacity was much cheaper. 

Nowadays, the idea of heat storage in water or in another liquid, follows another track: Excess energy is converted into heat which is that is stored in water[20]. The company Ecovat has developed a storage vessel (‘the ecovat ©’) in which 1500 m3 of water is stored underground for a period of 6 months with a temperature of 90 ° C and a yield of 90%.[21]

Cross-section of an ecovat © – Figure Ecovat

The ecovat © is a double-walled vessel. Heat exchangers between the double wall provide for the extraction or addition of heat to the water in the vessel. The water that runs through the heat exchanger is heated with sustainable heat from local geothermic sources , waste heat and solar energy. The ecovat © is also equipped with control software. This ensures, among other things, that action is taken on the basis of current weather forecasts and energy prices. 

A demonstration project has been realized in the Dutch village of Uden.  This project has a capacity of 88,000 kilowatt-hours and can supply up to 1,000 homes with heat. Ecovat works together with Enexis, a regional grid operator in the Netherlands. Ecovat is part of a consortium called Flexible Heat and Power (FHP). This consortium is co-financed under Horizon 2020. 

The reduction of the production of natural gas production in the Netherlands has increased the urgency of the question from where we will get our heat in the future. Sustainable sources like wind, sun and earth are plentiful, provided huge investment to make them available.  For the purpose of storing several alternatives are available too, which enables making locally-adapted choices. 


[1]https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-2017/

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/27113/tesla-gaat-voor-grootste-virtuele-energiecentrale-bestaande-uit-50000-huishoudens

[3]https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/ik-weet-het-even-niet-zegt-ict-schiphol~bdcf9424/?utm_campaign=shared%20content

[4]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/23689/alfen-levert-mega-energie-opslag-van-bmw-batterijen-aan-nuon

[5]https://www.expirion.nl/blog-3–burgers-bouwen-eigen-virtuele-elektriciteitscentrale.html

[6]https://electrek.co/2018/02/04/tesla-powerwall-solar-virtual-power-plant/

[7]https://www.dnvgl.nl/publications/haalbaarheid-en-schaalbaarheid-van-de-buurtbatterij-113722

[8]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/stad-van-de-toekomst/29203/hoe-148-tweedehands-elektrische-auto-accus-de-arena-van-stroom-voorzien

[9]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/28415/nieuwe-batterij-voor-goedkope-opslag-hernieuwbare-energie

[10]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/28421/duitse-onderzoekers-ontwikkelen-silicium-accu-met-hoge-opslagcapaciteit

[11]https://www.cursor.tue.nl/nieuws/2015/november/sluitstuk-zout-als-verwarming/

[12]https://www.tno.nl/nl/aandachtsgebieden/bouw-infra-maritiem/roadmaps/buildings-infrastructure/energiepositieve-gebouwde-omgeving/warmtebatterij-doorbraak-opslag-duurzame-energie/

[13]https://www.buurkracht.nl/nieuws/thuis-energie-opslaan-met-een-zeezoutbatterij

[14]https://www.natuurenmilieuoverijssel.nl/friksbeheer/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/energievoorziening-in-de-toekomst-GridFlex-Heeten.pdf

[15]https://www.rvo.nl/subsidies-regelingen/projecten/grid-flex-heeten

[16]https://www.ewe.com/de/presse/pressemitteilungen/2017/06/ewe-plant-größte-batterie-der-welt-ewe-ag

[17]https://www.deingenieur.nl/artikel/redoxbatterij-levert-buffer-boerenstroom

[18]https://www.ewe-gasspeicher.de/home/b4p

[19]https://www.deingenieur.nl/artikel/lievense-de-man-van-het-opslagbekken

[20]http://www.dgem.nl/nl/andere-duurzame-energie-oplossingen/thermische-energieopslag-systemen

[21]https://www.ecovat.eu

Smart building: The long way to a circular economy

 

 

afbeelding1
Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

 

Possibly, in 2050 the word waste can be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are sceptical of the outcomes of this agreement. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction, we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

afbeelding2
Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Plan has yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling:

The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits.

The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

afbeelding3
Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case, we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones.

Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can be scrutinized from four angles:

– the reduction of the use of materials, water and energy

– the degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.

– the sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.

– Sensible management, for example, full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment.

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, (residential buildings), the Zuidas (offices) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling.

afbeelding14png
Crossover – photo Zwartlicht

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building.

This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components.

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.

[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html

 

Swap smart city for inclusive city

Last year I wrote 24 short essays about smart cities. They are collected in an e-book, that can be downloaded for free here. What to expect?

Smart city tales

For more than 10 years, ‘smart’ has been a ‘leitmotif’ for tackling urban problems. Companies such as IBM and Cisco, and later also Apple, Amazon and Google all emphasised that technology is the key to their solution. Many city administrators, entrepreneurs and young starters felt attracted to this idea.

But why these blinkers? Anyone who focuses blindly on technology as the solution to contemporary problems will quickly lose sight of the problems themselves. They underrate the problems caused by technology itself and also that for many problems other solutions than technological ones are indispensable.

Some examples of problems that make people worried

  • Will I come around with my income?
  • Do I find an affordable house?
  • Is there still work for the children?
  • Is the air that I breathe healthy?
  • Why is my manager so unreasonable?
  • How secure is the internet?
  • Who will take care of my mother later?
  • Can I trust what I eat?
  • Developments are all going too fast for me
  • Who is actually in charge
  • Does a world war will break out?
  • Does my child like to go to school
  • Who can I still trust?
  • Can I still say what I think?
  • Is my country still my country?
  • Why do top managers earn so much money?

Core values

Reducing these problems to four categories proved to be helpful:

  • Threat to basic needs
  • Pillage of the earth
  • Injustice
  • Abuse of technology and data

Each of these categories also refers to core values ​​that in mutual connection will improve the quality of life in a country and the happiness of its inhabitants.

Inclusive growth

 Well-being

The satisfaction of our basic needs such as livelihood, housing, education, health care, social contacts and personal growth. There is still a lot to improve here.

 Sustainable prosperity

The earth has all the ingredients for a healthy and even prosperous life for us and our offspring. This requires a circular economy based on reuse of resources, the elimination of CO2 emissions, and a less materialistic attitude. The awareness is growing, there is still a lot to do.

Justice

The fact that we live together with others is of vital importance, whether it is a partner, family, the street, the city or the country. The quality of our social life depends on the mutual acceptance of equality and diversity and the balance between give and take. Here too, humanity still has a lot to learn.

Digital connectivity

Just like all forms of technology, computerization is able to support the other core values, but is also a value in itself. ICT adds a new dimension to human creativity and inventiveness and can improve the quality of our lives. However, the virtues of digital connectivity ought not to be appropriated by certain groups. Interoperability, ‘edgeless computing’, ‘blockchain’ and the use of open software standards and open data can contribute to prevent this.

The four core values ​​can be at odds with each other, but also reinforce each other. In the latter case, I refer to inclusiveness.

In each of the 24 short essays the ‘smart city idea’ as a starting point. Sometimes politicizing, for example when it comes to the way the big technology companies take control of society, but also anecdotal, for instance in the smart cities cases like PlanIT Valley near Porto, but also very practical, for example in introductions to circular construction, electricity-generating windows and the storage of energy.

In the final essay I propose to replace the idea smart with inclusive growth. To become more concrete about what that means, I have drawn up a charter that every city or region in the world can use. I already recognize the quest for inclusiveness of a number of cities such as Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Seoul. However, these and all others ones still have a long way to go.

India’s 100 Smart Cities Mission is flawed

Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing compete with London, Paris and New York for the top of the global city ranking. Do not take rankings like these too serious but the absence of Indian cities in the higher tiers is not startling. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) India releases the fourth largest amount of CO2 emissions in the world and Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. The dysfunctionality of the infrastructure is not limited to transport: An official study of 1,405 cities revealed that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities, 30 per cent of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12 per cent while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3 per cent. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which by-the-way are the main source of potable water.

Without mayor changes the problem will worsen every year because of the unprecedented growth of the urban population. Between 2010 and 2050 about 500 million inhabitants must be added to the urban population of 377 million nowadays.

In the meantime, India’s economy is expanding rapidly. By 2030 it is expected to have grown by five times, buoyed largely by the country’s urban centres and resulting in a growth of its labour force by 200 million workers. India’s energy demand is expected to increase three times in the coming 10 years.

The Mission

Against the background of these challenges, prime minister Modi presented a ‘Mission’ in 2015 named “Digital India” announcing the foundation of 100 smart cities across the country. This plan is envisaging making India a leader in digitally delivering a broad array of services:

  • Adequate water supply
  • Assured (green) electricity supply
  • Sanitation, including solid waste management
  • Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  • Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  • Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation
  • Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation
  • Sustainable environment
  • Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
  • Health
  • Education

The Mission is definitely not lacking in ambition!

Project management

A competition that took two years resulted in the selection of 107 areas where the new cities are supposed to appear. Each project is funded with $150 million spread over five consecutive years. Hiring foreign project management is mandatory. For instance, the city of Kota is collaborating with the Dutch HaskoningDHV.

Artist impression of the World trade Centre of Dholera Special Investment Region.

Taking into account the total costs of the realization of each plan, the available funds are peanuts, which necessitates the acquisition of additional sources. Options are public private partnerships, commercial bank’s lending, take out financing, infrastructure financing institutions, external commercial borrowing, and foreign direct investments.

The competence of the incumbent administrative bodies was judged to be inadequate to lead the projects. Therefore, Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), acting under company law and headed by a CEO have evoked. The private sector might even become the biggest single shareholder of an SPV, so long as the combined shareholding of the state and local government is bigger. All rights and obligations of the municipal council with respect to the smart city project will be delegated to the SVP, including the power to collect taxes!

Artist impression of Gujarat International Financial Tech-City

A strategic turn

At first the ‘Mission’ had two strategic equally weighted components: Area-based developments and pan-city initiatives. The former are aimed at transforming existing precincts through retrofitting and renewal, and to develop new extensions to cities through greenfield developments. The latter envisage the application of appropriate smart solutions to existing city-wide infrastructure.

Reviewing the proposals which have been accepted, contrary to the original requirements, 71% of the funding will be spend on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about 4% of the city’s population on average and it involves less then 3% of the total area.

Under area-based development, plans have proposed redevelopment of old and creation of new central business districts, retrofitting infrastructure within these districts such as water supply, sewerage, and creation of public spaces. The proposals for the entire city, however, are limited to IT-based services like a CCTV-monitored central command system, “smart” education portals and “intelligent” water and traffic management systems and do not include investment in the infrastructure itself.

Artist impression of Vijayawada Smart City

So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country, predicts Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the The Housing and Land Rights Network

The interests behind IT-centred thinking

The direction in which the plans have evolved is unmistakably orchestrated by the bunch of IT-companies that is involved in the development of smart cities world-wide from 2006 on, when IBM started its ‘Smarter Planet’ campaign, Cisco followed with its Smart+Connected Communities initiative, Siemens launched its CityCockpit, and Microsoft presented its CityNext programme. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews expressed this perfectly in his speech at the Smart Cities Summit in Mumbai: I am joined today by representatives from 18 leading American environmental technology companies, all of whom are looking for new business opportunities in India’s growing infrastructure market. Indeed, business opportunities seem abundant: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimates the global smart city market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020.

Cultural awareness instead of indifference

The pictures in this post are taken from glossy brochures and video’s of the plan. They reveal the direction in which the wannabe smart cities in India are supposed to develop. Let yourself be impressed for a while by the animation of Dholera Special Investment Region.

You will see fascinating architecture, futuristic transportation systems and multi-lane express ways. Not to forget, the air is blue and fresh.

Indian master architect Doshi warns that the urban vision behind the smart city proposals will destroy the informality and diversity that is the cornerstone of the country’s rural and urban society. In his view people do not have to live in multi-story towers in the age of the internet, and he rejects the necessity of expanding cities as long as adequate choices and opportunities can be generated in rural areas. I think the land pressure is actually an illusion. Why should you be close-by all the time to a million people? he asks.

Artist impression of smart Bhopal

Urban designer Rajeev Kathpalia suggests that India needs to build smart cities which respond specifically to its culture and rural networks. We have to rethink the concept of cities as centralized entities. In stead he advocates the conception of independent and self-supporting settlements at different scales, each one complete by itself or moving towards completion.

Mumbai-based urbanist Rahul Mehrotra agrees: The problem with the notion of ‘smart cities’ is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity.

Whatever problems the Mission will solve, these are not the dismal services nor the on-going growth of the population. We have to deal with the basics first, Shivani Chaudhry said. The basics are housing, employment and infrastructure and not technology as such. The Mission will not provide big public investment in expanding urban infrastructure except for enclaves where businesses and prosperous citizens are welcomed. She accentuates that Instead of trying to mitigate the effects of urbanization, the government should aim to address its causes -the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration.

Indian papers are critical too. They question the role of SPV’s and the curtailing of democratic control. The ‘Mission’ is a flight ahead, not only leaving the already mentioned problems unsolved, but it is unrealistic itself, as the lion’s share of the investment capital is still missing.

Artist impression of Amaravati Smart City

What would a better Mission have looked like?

Personally I believe that – in contrast to what actually happens – a pan-city approach, including a whole city and its rural fringes should have been be prioritized. The competition could have focussed better on master plans for the development of territories of let’s say 1000 – 5000 km2. These plans should have taken into account all aspects of the existing infrastructure, the expected population growth in the next decades, the options for sustainable growth and development and the cultural identity of the region. Within this master plan a handful of pilot projects could have been selected, offering a spectrum from a down-town business centres – if necessary – with 21th century high-rise buildings, to industrial areas where clean industry and housing are realized within walking distance and to small rural towns surrounded by agriculture. Delegation of power to a centralized body is probably wise, but not at cost of democratic participation. And without realistic funding any plan is a pie in the sky.

An initial experiment in ten regions might have increased the credibility of the Mission. I would have selected proposals that equally address economic challenges, infrastructural problems, and a decent life for all inhabitants as well. My winning plans will unlock the potential of the whole rural – urban continuum, promise to spread the prospective growth of the population, realize sustainable solutions, preserve environment and culture and have been developed in dialogue with inhabitants. And not to forget, they deploy the enabling potential of ITC.

NEOM or the glow of a Saoudi-Arabian spring?

During a recent meeting of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyad the 32 year old crown prince of Saoudi-Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the building of a 25.000 km2 smart city from scatch, 30 times the size of New York. The required investment – $500 billion – will be financed by selling 5% of the shares of the national oil company Aramco. Klaus Kleinfeld, former chief executive of Siemens AG and Alcoa Inc. will lead the project. I will discuss the plans first, after which I will comment on them.

The rational behind the plan is to decrease Saoudi-Arabian dependency on oil. In addition, the volume of money leaking out of the country will be diminished by expanding local investment options. At the same time the plan hints at fundamental changes in the Saoudi-Arabian society.

Boost for the economy

new city wil become the trigger of the diversification of the economy. It will be powered by renewable energy, applying advanced energy storage and produce its own water supply. The core industries will be biotechnology, food technology, advanced manifacturing, creative industries and the development of digital content. Universities will focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. The contribution to the Kingdom’s GDP is projected to reach at least $100 billion by 2030.

Smart city

The city will be CO2 neutral. The personal transport will rely on autonomous cars. The city will be serving as a laboratory for innovative construction techniques and materials. Internet will be free, other forms of connectivity will be state-of-the-art. Land use will be mixed, allowing people to reach their destinations by walking to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Government services will be fully automated and easily accessible to all residents.

Liveable city

The city is located in a rich natural environment, offering a shoreline of 450 km. Its center will be a marvelous park. In every aspect human beïngs will be top priority. Its cultural life, healthcare and its educational institutions will measure with the best of the world. NEOM is meant to grow into an aspirational society with an idyllic lifestyle. It will become a community founded on modern architecture, green space, high quality of life, safety, and technology in the service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities. The city will offer a multicultural environment in wich a proactive and diverse community will thrive and living by world class social norms. These conditions will attrack the best scientists and entrepreneurs of the world, especially the younger ones.

Automomous status

NEOM will be granted the status of an autonomous economic zone and be will be independent of the Kingdom’s existing governmental framework, excluding sovereignity laws. This status enables the industry to manufacture and provide goods and services at globally competitive prices and also to be a place of freedom.

A cultural turn

A visionary Mohammed bin Salman said This project is not a place for any conventional investor … This is a place for dreamers who want to do something in the world He added that young Saudis and the promotion of moderate Islam are the key to his modernizing dream for his country: We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people.

At this point, I strongly recomment to watch the video that is part of the glossy presentation of NEOM.

The information above has already acknowledged you with the facts. Now focus at the subtext of this presentation and its subtle suggestions of a cultural turn. You are watching a modern country, with happy young men and women, mostly unveiled. Girls are dancing. The crown prince wil have understood that a cultural change like this requires NEOM to be an autonomous entity with Saoudi-Arabia. But it is evident that he aims it to become a role model for the country as a whole.

Realizing NEOM’s infrastructure, attracting new industries and having competent scientist and entrepreneurs migrated from abroad will be a huge operation. Taking into account the availability of large resources and the power of bin Salman, the project is not a mission impossible. However it wil take time. When asked about the number of citizens of NEOM, bin Salman said – rightly – that the population has to grown organically. But the same applies to the city as a whole which makes any estimation of its contribution to Saoudi-Arabian GDP in vain.

cultural turn will be even more demanding, but it is a necessary requirement for the success of the project. Probably bin Salman’s intention to liberalize the country, the Islam included, will be supported by the younger generation, women in the first place. However the resistance from the traditional establishment will be tough. Only to-day the King put in jail sixteen of bin Salman’s opponents. Bin Salman might take as example the almighty and popular current Chinese president and leader of the communist party Xi Jinping. However Xi is standing at the shoulders of mighty predecessors like Deng Xiaoping and does not need taking into account conservative religious leaders[1].

NEOM is not just another smart city, it is a focal point for radical cultural and social change in Saoudi-Arabia and possibly the Arab world as a whole. Mohammed bin Salman is realizing the scale of his mission when he is saying: This is a double-edged sword. If they (young Saudis) work and go the right way, with all their force they will create another country, something completely different … and if they go the wrong direction it will be the destruction of this country.

[1] Referring at Chinese leaders is not by chance: My next article deals with another new mega city, Xiongan. This city, 100 km from Beïng has to relieve the capital’s growth and the subsequent pressure on trafic, air quality and housing. The city will cover three times the surface of New York; the sum to invest $250 billion.