Suburban sprawl is energy-efficient, says research

The suburban sprawl surrounding the world’s cities could become power providers for city centres, according to new research.

A team of scientists headed by UK professor Hugh Byrd from the University of Lincoln has revealed the continued adoption of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on suburban roofs, coupled with an increased use of electric vehicles, could produce enough energy to power city buildings.

The Transforming Cities report found low-density suburban sprawl has the potential to capture up to 10 times more energy than city-based commercial structures, including high rise buildings. The study highlighted Auckland, New Zealand, as a good example of a dense city centre with sprawling suburban regions that would benefit from solar transformation.

Professor Byrd, who specialises in architectural policy, said the study challenges conventional thinking that low-density suburban planning is energy-inefficient.

“In fact, our results reverse the argument for a compact city based on transport energy use, and completely change the current perception of urban sprawl,” he said.

“While a compact city may be more efficient for internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by photovoltaic installations is the main energy source and electric vehicles are the principal mode of transport.”

If this energy contribution is to be effective however, Professor Byrd said controls of new suburban development may be needed that require the installation of PV roofing, along with smart meters and appropriate charging facilities for vehicles.

“City planners will need to make the changes necessary to control suburban development,” he said.

Rather than rebuilding cities, the research suggests an embrace of smart technologies combined with dispersed suburban areas could reduce a city’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“It is more a case of building for the future – when the climate will be warmer, harvesting solar energy will be cheaper than the grid and emerging technologies will replace the internal combustion engine,” Professor Byrd said.

“Particularly for city centre travel where longevity isn’t an issue, electric vehicles will become increasingly more attractive as their price drops with mass production and the cost of fuel continues to rise.”