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Decentralised infrastructure

Over the next two decades, cities will lead the charge in developing decentralised local utilities

Decentralised infrastructure

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power scheme could provide power to almost 5.8 million homes but has attracted criticism for its £20bn price tag and the risk that it could be outdated by the time it is actually operational. This much-debated initiative has prompted the question as to whether, in the future, there will be a move towards decentralised infrastructure projects; namely, small scale infrastructure designed to service communities at the local level. Solar energy would be an obvious example, and we predict that by 2040 we will see more of these projects emerging as a solution to cost and resilience concerns.

130_Large infrastructure becomes obsolete_pullquote_270x177As Hinkley Point C demonstrates, large centralised infrastructure projects require a large amount of capital investment, as well as ongoing operational and maintenance costs. In the current climate of fiscal consolidation, governments have aimed to reduce expenditure and indebtedness. By their very definition, decentralised infrastructure systems are much smaller than the centralised counterparts they replace and reduce the cost of transporting electricity or water. However, as the technologies involved are relatively new they can be more capital intensive to initially set up. Despite this, as costs are borne at a local level, central government could increasingly rely on decentralised infrastructure projects under the ‘City Deals’ programme.

Decentralised infrastructure also increases the resilience of utilities networks. With a decentralised network, a failure would not disable the entire system, just one section of the network. Additionally, the small scale of each part of the network means that the network can be more responsive as new technologies become available; the system can be upgraded in a relatively short time with the most efficient infrastructure. The City of Sydney’s plan for a decentralised energy system aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18% to 26% below 2006 levels by 2030 using state of the art trigeneration (combined cooling, heat and power) technologies. Closer to home in Manchester, there are six major heat networks.

Given the density of infrastructure customers in urban areas, we expect that UK cities will experience the earliest adoption of decentralised networks; provided, of course, that they can find the physical space needed to accommodate these. As with all city land uses, price pressures mean this will be far from straightforward, but with technologies such as solar glass, we may see buildings adopt multiple purposes, such as office and power station, at the same time.

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Miles Gibson
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