Who speaks for the environment in your urban precinct?

Microgrids may deliver significant environmental benefits to urban precincts. In determining the best possible microgrid   infrastructure, there are two potential paths. One is to assess the environmental and economic benefit  of existing technological options.   Another approach is to create coalitions of precinct participants united by a shared vision of an ideal sustainable precinct, and then backcasting to find pathways to achieve this goal.  So what is the best approach and how can a microgrid create the environmental voice for an urban precinct?

Coalitions of the Willing

“There is a view that there are many ways that energy infrastructures…..can be shaped and that potentially different coalitions of social interest can claim to speak on behalf of the city.”

Hodsen and Marvin 2013

In 2010 the City of Sydney launched an ambitious goal to reduce GHG by 70% in the city by 2030. A key plank in this goal was to implement a trigeneration master-plan through the city. The plan envisaged four “Low Carbon Infrastructure Zones”. In each zone a number of trigeneration plants would be implemented to serve local buildings with electricity and thermal energy.  One such zone was the Pyrmont to Broadway precinct.

Figure One : “Low Carbon Zones” from City of Sydney Trigeneration Master Plan

The plan has faced significant barriers and has recently faced some harsh critique  however what is often missed is that the data created and the vision outlined by the City of Sydney was a breakthrough in and of itself. This thinking will be useful for generations to come.

In discussions with the “Green Infrastructure Team” at the City of Sydney it became clear that the learning from this program has been to shift the focus away from large scale “zones” to more contained localised precincts. In addition the council created a key role for itself as a facilitator of low carbon transitions. There is considerable research around the appropriate governance scale for enacting environmental transitions. A precinct level provides benefits in terms of having significant enough scale to have an  impact but at a manageable level of organisational complexity. (Kahn 2012).

One precinct that has been identified by the City of Sydney is the Broadway precinct.  This precinct has a number of attributes that lend itself to a low carbon transition. Besides having appropriately dense energy usage, several of the key local building owners have self selected based on their interest or requirement for such a transition.

The University of Technology (UTS), for example,  has committed to a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020-2021 and is currently undergoing a major campus  development which has some key environmental goals.  Sydney Tafe, which is across the road  from UTS, has the minimisation of its carbon footprint as a key corporate goal. In a period of fiscal constraint, it is seeking cost effective ways to achieve this goal.


To the east of University of Technology lies CentralPark. This is arguably the currently leading edge sustainable mixed use community in Australia. Working with the City of Sydney the developers (Frasers Property and Sekisui) achieved the highest standards of sustainability.  For example there is a major new district energy plant installed at CentralPark, and discussions have been on-going between the University of Technology and the developers at CentralPark about the potential to link the two districts. There are evident load diversity benefits (diversity is the the ability to optimise efficiency of energy equipment serving via loads that are evenly spread through the day).

There are several other potential local participants in the transformation of this precinct including the ABC (which is constantly seeking ways to find low carbon ways to retain the energy reliability required by a national broadcaster) as well as the Powerhouse Museum.

It is clear, therefore that this precinct has the ideal energy usage attributes and stakeholder dynamics for the implementation of a microgrid that will drive low carbon outcomes. In reality this goal is proving much more difficult that it appears.

More of the same or regime change?

It seems that at this stage the transition has stalled.  Perhaps the primary reason is that although the City of Sydney speaks for the environment across the city, there is no party with the resources available to fund the process required to evaluate and then implement the ideal low carbon precinct transition.  The launch of the CRC project “Retrofitting urban precincts” which I am involved with aims to fill this void and investigate how to move forward with transitions on the basis of precincts. It aims to do this for the Broadway precinct, but to also  look at ways to leverage the processes into future urban contexts.

To determine the best approach for the Broadway precinct, it is useful to establish an appropriate language which facilitates change processes. One recent framework is called “Mutli-level perspective on transitions”(MLP). This approach works on three key levels of transition. The first is the socio-technical landscape which, put simply is impacts of the conditions outside of the precinct (for example macro economics, regulatory and political aspects). The second is social-technical regime which is the existing configuration of resources and social context within the precinct.  The final layer is called niche-innovations which are networks of novelties and learning processes that can enact step change to the regime.

Multi-level perspectives of transitions ( FW Geels – ‎2012)


Based on this language we can define the two core approaches to change that could be used either in combination or separately to create the low carbon transition in the Broadway precinct.  The first is techno-economic which is  an “emergent” process. In other words the existing institutional structures drive solutions based on commercial opportunities for current processes and technologies. The other approach is “purposive” in that it articulates clearly the long term vision first, and then uses “back-casting” to determine the right solution. Both these approaches have positives and negatives and it is critical to find the right approach if the CRC is to be successful.

The following are some proposed positive and negatives of each approach. These are based  on past experience and should be validated during research.

Approach Positives Negatives
  • Pragmatic with faster time to market
  • Often very measurable outcomes
  • Well established end-to-end processes for implementation
  • Narrow view on scenarios can lead to incorrect assumptions and non-optimal outcomes
  • Can lead to perverse outcomes such as installation of equipment to meet star rating schemes that are then not utilised
Niche Driven
  • Broad and wide view on possible scenarios
  • Envisage outcomes which maximise carbon reduction rather than simply fit existing paradigms
  • Difficult for non-technical stakeholders to understand the constraints of technologies and regulation (leading to unrealistic visions)
  • R&D and regulation change creates too much uncertainty during a commercial project
  • Less measurable outcomes
  • Uncertain process for end to end implementation
  • Often unsuccessful due to pressure from the socio-technical regime

A fundamental issue with the tech-economic approach is that outcomes are pre-determined. Geels contends that existing structures can form “lock-in mechanisms” which create “path dependence and make it difficult to dislodge existing systems”. These mechanisms include institutional commitments, shared beliefs, power relations, politics and lifestyle preferences (of inhabitants) .

On this basis it would appear that the Niche driven approach is at least the better starting point for a visioning exercise around sustainability transition. Nevens (2013) suggests the creation of an Urban Transition Lab to encourage niche creation. The most significant barrier to practical outcomes at this stage is the danger that non-technical participants distract the debate due to lack of knowledge of technical, regulatory or commercial constraints. To counter this, some preparation material need to be developed that guides and constrains discussions (for example providing simple to understand graphical representations of concepts such as maximum energy yield from roof mounted solar panels). Some of these constrained areas will be based in thermodynamic fundamentals, however some will be subjective such as the impact of learning curves, regulatory change and changes in behavior over time.

To ensure that we cover the best of both worlds, the standard techno-economic response should also be incorporated as  one potential scenario.

So what about Microgrids?

Visioning exercises for a low carbon precinct may include battery storage, renewable energy, integration of demand management, behavior change,  using local cogeneration or trigeneration and greater real-time response to price signals from the grid.

A microgrid is an enabling technology for optimising the application of these processes and technologies. It introduces the concept of a local grid that can be owned and controlled by local stakeholders. The aggregation of energy demand creates new dynamics and possibilities in terms of local generation and demand management.  It also enables a more granular view on the energy services required locally. In Broadway , for example, there will be particular loads that require the highest level of reliability (ABC broadcasting for example). There will be many other loads that are far less important. A microgrid enables prioritisation of such energy services.

This decentralised local grid presents itself in a new way to the traditional “macro-grid”. It tells the grid that it has larger load and a load that is more controllable. This is potentially more attractive to the grid and not just from a “bulk purchase” perspective. This starts to get a bit technical, however basically just think of the grid as having markets for more than just energy. The grid is also interested in power quality, stability and environmental outcomes.  A microgrid can also present these types of services to the macro-grid (for a more in-depth technical version have a read of some of the resources below).

In addition it introduces the possibility of a local distribution service operator (DSO). This is an entity that offers control services for the local grid, extracts the benefits, and distributes the financial and environmental paybacks to stakeholders. The CRC research should investigate the benefits of a DSO. In particular it is interesting to view the establishment of a local energy company not only in terms of impacts on energy use, but also the impact on behavioral change. It creates a “voice” for the environmental outcomes in the precinct and as an entity that will remain in the precinct long after any one project it  may be the advocate of transitions in the longer term.


Where to next in the low carbon transition of the Broadway Precinct?

Based on the above, the next step for the Broadway precinct low carbon transition CRC Research is to embark upon a controlled visioning exersise based on a combination of processes such as MLT, but tempering with practical technical and regulatory experience and constraints.

It will be a forum to create a “voice” for the precinct.



Some good reading upon which some of these concepts were based :

Farret, F (2006) “Integration of Alternative Sources of Energy”  Wiley-IEEE Press
Hatziargyriou, N, 2009 “Advanced Architectures and Control Concepts for More Microgrid” A European Project Supported by the European Commission  within the Sixth Framework Program for RTD
Hodson, M 2010, “Mediating Low-Carbon Urban Transitions? Forms of Organization, Knowledge and Action” UK European Planning Studies Vol. 20, No. 3, March 2012
Katiraei, F (2009) Microgrid management  – controls and operations of grid” IEEE power and energy magazine
Khan , J , 2013 “What role for network governance in urban low carbon transitions?” Journal of Cleaner Production 50 (2013) 133e139
McCormicka, K, 2013 “Advancing sustainable urban transformation” Journal of Cleaner Production 50 (2013) 1e11





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