Paul Rutter, a Visiting Professor in Chemical Engineering at Imperial, has been investigating the history of energy systems from the earliest hunter-gatherers through to the rise of modern energy services in London. I’ve been working with him recently trying to interpret this material from an urban perspective, and it’s a fascinating story of changing consumption patterns, interactions between government and private actors, and unexpected innovations, and one that hopefully can tell us something about our chances of achieving a new transition to low carbon cities.
If you’ve ever read the work of Vaclav Smil, Roger Fouquet and Peter Pearson or others, you’ll know that this is a huge field and it really deserves a book length treatment. But, for the moment, we’ve written a paper that tries to emphasize the main themes and sets the stage for further work.
Modern cities depend on energy systems to deliver a range of services such as heating, cooling, lighting, mobility, communications, and so on. This article examines how these urban energy systems came to be, tracing the major transitions from the earliest settlements through to today’s fossil-fuelled cities. The underlying theme is increasing efficiency under constraints with each transition marked by increasing energy efficiency in service provision, increasing per capita energy use, increasing complexity in the energy system’s structure, with innovations driven by a strategic view of the overall system, and accompanied by wider changes in technology and society. In developed countries, the future of urban energy systems is likely to continue many of these trends, with increased efficiency being driven by the constraints of climate change and rising fuel prices. Both supply and demand side technologies are discussed as potential solutions to these issues, with different impacts on the urban environment and its citizens. However in developing countries, rising urban populations and access to basic energy services will drive the next transition.
Rutter, P., & Keirstead, J. (2012). A brief history and the possible future of urban energy systems Energy Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2012.03.072