Suburbs feed congestion, sprawl, and air pollution. But the very same reasons that suburbs are wasteful in the age of fossil fuels—scattered, low-density populations and long drives—could turn into virtues in the solar energy era.
University of New Zealand researchers, in a new study, examined the solar potential of the suburbs based on rooftop solar panels and the energy usage in the New Zealand city of Auckland. Their work, they write, "completely" reverses arguments for a compact city, at least based on the idea that we should reduce energy use in transportation.
"While a compact city may be more efficient for the internal combustion engine vehicles," they write, "a dispersed city is more efficient when solar power is the main energy source and [electric vehicles] are the means of transport."
Today in cities, the scarce and expensive real estate requires that energy arrives from afar in "high density" forms, such as electricity, oil, or natural gas. But the suburbs have the upper hand when it comes to renewables, with vast acres of rooftops hooked up to the grid and a surplus of power to meet demand in nearby cities during peak times. This vision of "efficient" suburbs, however, relies on a world where electric vehicles, photovoltaic panels, and smart meters come together to displace our dependence on fossil fuels.
In some respects, we are moving in that direction. Within the next five to 10 years, in some locations, the cost of solar and wind power is likely equal to that of grid electricity delivered from conventional sources, such as coal and natural gas power plants.
Smart meters are being rolled out across the country. And wind and solar, once dismissed as too intermittent to dominate a nation’s power grid, may exceed 50% of the power grid by 2025 in countries such as Denmark. More is possible: A 2012 study by the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College asserts wind and solar power paired with better storage could, by 2030, almost entirely supply a large electric grid at costs comparable to today’s prices.
Yet massive changes are needed to realize this ideal of the suburbs. The market share of electric vehicles and solar panels are both still in the single digits and would have to grow dramatically. The cost of wind and solar must continue to come down, while the country’s energy infrastructure and purchasing behavior will need to undergo a major shift.
If so, the suburbs may one day power the city.