Five Thoughts on the All-Electric City

It could happen sooner than you think, says Barny Evans

May 2018

Words by Barny Evans


We need to stop unnecessary deaths

According to our research, 4,250 premature deaths in London each year can be directly attributed to breathing bad air. One in four residents has seriously considered moving out of the city because of noise and poor air quality. We worked out that if electricity could power all of its transport needs and replace gas for heating and cooling, we could reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions that harm our lungs by 37%, and carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds. So we challenged London, and all other leading cities, to commit to becoming all-electric by 2035.


People want fossil-free cities

In our survey, we found that Londoners were generally in favour of the city becoming fossil-free within the next 20 years. They supported an electric car-hire scheme, and reducing energy bills was considered a priority. It is becoming standard for new developments to be all-electric and designs have been changed to electric at the request of the planning authority. A lot of people ask where we are going to get all the electricity from. Renewables, energy efficiency and smart energy management with energy storage are already addressing these challenges.


The car revolution will happen quicker than expected

Small numbers of all-electric cars are sold today, but they will become more affordable. Governments are now setting their own targets for full car electrification. Last year, the UK government announced that all cars sold will be electrified by 2040, and France intends to have ended sales of petrol and diesel for cars by 2040 too. Volvo has stated that it will only sell hybrid and electric cars from 2019 in one year’s time. Buildings will need electric car charging points, increasing energy demand. So we need to think about what additional equipment will be required, how energy will be stored and how smart energy systems can be introduced.


A gas boiler might already be a bad investment 

Heat pumps have a much lower carbon intensity than gas, as well as air-quality benefits. From auditing and modelling buildings across Europe, Asia, Canada and the US, we demonstrated that using heat pumps rather than gas boilers and traditional air conditioning chillers can cut the cost of commercial building ventilation by a quarter as well as reducing NO2 emissions. Electric buildings are reporting lower carbon every year as electricity production itself becomes more efficient. If you install a gas boiler or a CHP engine that will last, say, 20 years, that’s going to look like a bad decision in ten or 15 years’ time (and arguably even now). 

From The Possible, issue 03

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We will have a completely different attitude to cooling

People living in cities are increasingly complaining that their homes overheat in summer. Electricity is the only realistic solution for future cooling systems. But in an all-electric city, we will also be able to open our windows. Streets will be quieter, cleaner and cooler as less heat is generated from building services and vehicles. We will be able to have more open spaces and pavement cafes, and we could put housing in places that are currently undesirable because they are too noisy and polluted.


Barny Evans is head of sustainable places, energy and waste at WSP in the UK



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