Building Back Better for a Fossil-Fuel Free Future
Infrastructure shapes our identity and values, so it’s important that these structures and spaces signal that renewable energy is becoming an integral part of community life. By generating renewable energy and reducing energy use, these spaces can also make real—not just symbolic—contributions to our environment, health, and well-being. As President Biden calls for major infrastructure investments in order to “Build Back Better,” architects, landscape architects and planners, need to create new forms of shared infrastructure that move renewable energy forward.
Power plants and buildings account for a large share of greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions from the transportation sector, which are produced by cars, trucks, buses, ships, planes, and trains, account for nearly 30 percent of emissions in the U.S. We can address this by making renewable energy the only source of our electricity and electrifying transportation systems. Electric cars, trucks, buses, and light-rail would improve energy efficiency and largely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. They would also make our air cleaner, preventing tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. from air pollution each year.
As outlined in my book, Good Energy: Renewable Power and the Design of Everyday Life, Europe and China provide models for the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure the U.S. needs to build. In 2016, carmakers Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen, and Ford formed a joint venture called IONITY and announced plans to build electric “superhighways” across Europe that will offer EV owners access to four hundred high-speed EV-charging stations. Depending on battery size and the speed of the charger, an EV can take anywhere from one to ten hours to fully charge. With “super-high-speed” 360-kilowatt EV chargers that have just been released, charging could be accomplished in as little as eight minutes.
Partnering with Clever, a Danish electric-mobility provider, and E.On, a European electric utility, the Danish architecture firm COBE created a charging station with four, high-speed 150-kilowatt chargers, which will eventually be replaced with super-high-speed chargers on the E20 motorway passing through Fredericia, a city in Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The charging station is the first of 48 planned on Scandinavian highways and will become part of the broader network of four hundred stations planned as part of the broader European electric superhighway. Modeling their station after a grove of trees, they constructed modular structures made of certified sustainable woods that provide shade and shelter and are easy to scale up or down based on the size of the lot and the number of chargers needed.
Their first station in Fredericia includes 12 treelike structures. Underneath, the high-speed chargers can juice up an EV with a 248-mile-range battery in about 20 minutes, with the chargers powered by Denmark’s solar and wind energy. COBE worked with the Danish Society for Nature Conservation to plant diverse native tree, shrub, and grass species to enhance biodiversity and reinforce the message that EVs, while detached from nature, better support environmental and human health than fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.
Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province in eastern China, has also been an innovator in clean transportation systems, including electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel-cell cars and buses; bike and EV shares; and EV charging stations. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, Hangzhou has become one of the “20 electric vehicle capitals of the world.” These cities together accounted for more than 43 percent of the 2 million EVs sold worldwide in 2016.
Hangzhou purchased thousands of electric buses; created an electric-car-share program; implemented EV-friendly building and parking codes; gave privileged street access to EVs; and instituted an innovative battery swapping system for its fleet of electric taxis, which allows one taxi to travel for 143 miles on two or three charged batteries every day. In addition to benefiting from the Chinese government’s use of subsidies for EVs (up to nearly $10,000 in the past few years), the city implemented a stringent quota system that made purchasing a car that runs on fossil fuels nearly impossible, while putting low-emission vehicles in reach. According to China Daily, the city has also invested in expanding its EV-charging infrastructure, with the goal of having charging stations accessible within 0.6 miles or less for every Hangzhou resident.
At the base of the headquarters of Hangzhou Inventronics, a leading manufacturer of LED-light drivers, architecture firm GLA Design created a striking 1,600-square-foot publicly accessible, prefabricated charging station in 2017 that pilots a modular approach used for conventional gas stations. The goal is to reduce costs and make charging stations easily replicable.
Solar panels on the roof of the charging station power 18 charging stations for vehicles and four for buses. A built-in battery stores energy generated by the panels for use at night.
Our efforts to integrate renewable energy into the public realm shouldn’t stop with transportation infrastructure. We can also strengthen community connection with renewable energy by designing it into central community hubs, such as parks and sports centers. In Washington, D.C., Washington Canal Park shows the potential for parks to become central nodes in networks of EV chargers and to reduce energy use through geothermal sources.
The park uses 28 geothermal wells to reduce the energy use of the park by 12-percent. While the park isn’t net-zero in terms of its energy use, it demonstrates the great potential for public spaces to incorporate geothermal heating and cooling. Plus, four EV chargers on its perimeter show how public spaces can support sustainable transportation. While the geothermal system is largely invisible, Skip Graffam, a partner and director of research at OLIN, the landscape architecture firm that designed the park, argues that “all landscape architects should strive to reduce energy demand in their projects and look for creative opportunities to achieve on-site energy generation and storage.” Graffam says the best way to prevent these features from being cut during the commissioning process is by working across disciplines “to find the most cost-efficient solution that addresses multiple project requirements and providing clear and rigorous life-cycle performance and benefit analysis to the client.”
Amager Bakke, familiarly known as CopenHill, in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a waste-to-energy power plant topped with a park and sports center. Designed by BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group, this 441,000-square-foot facility converts waste into energy and heat, while giving people access to a 1,480-foot-long ski slope, a 280-foot-high climbing wall, and 1,600-foot-long hiking and running trail designed with SLA, a landscape architecture firm. The project is the most visible demonstration of Copenhagen’s ambition to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025.
According to Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, engineers of the power plant, Amager Bakke converts 400,000 tons of waste each year into heat for 160,000 households and electricity for another 62,500, while eliminating 99.95 percent of toxic sulfur dioxide and reducing nitrogen-oxide emissions by 90 percent. Depending on local heat and electricity demand and prices, Amager Bakke switches back and forth between electricity and heat generation.
The National Stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, which was built for the 2009 World Games, is made up of 8,800 solar panels that generate up to 1.14 megawatt hours of power annually. Pritzker Prize–winning architect Toyo Ito partnered with designers and engineers at the Takenaka Corporation and Fu Tsu Construction Company to create the 116-foot-tall, 275,000-square-foot stadium that can seat 55,000 spectators. When the stadium isn’t in use, energy produced by the solar panels is fed back to the energy grid. According to the architects, the power generated by the stadium offsets some 660 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. To further reduce its environmental impact, the stadium is set in a lush public park that is walking distance to and from a mass transit station, which reduces the number of visitors driving to events and contributing to transportation-related emissions.
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As these projects demonstrate, the U.S. remains far behind Europe and China in designing and building EV charging infrastructure and integrating renewable energy into community spaces. To regain its global competitiveness, we need to rapidly reimagine our infrastructure for a post-fossil fuel world. Instead of replacing the infrastructure of the past, there’s an opportunity to learn from the rest of the world and leapfrog ahead with U.S-designed and manufactured renewable energy systems that can create thousands of local green jobs.
New American infrastructure needs to send a message: renewable energy reflects our contemporary values. It’s both efficient and essential. Architects, landscape architects, and planners have a critical task ahead, to envision and design infrastructure that generates wide public support for a clean energy future.
Featured image: Electric Vehicle Charging Station, Fredericia, Denmark / COBE and Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST