EXCLUSIVE: Net zero precincts have lots of barriers: complex governance challenges and disincentives among them, a soon-to-be-released federal government report says. But according to one of the authors, Arup’s Roger Swinbourne, there are promising solutions, writes Poppy Johnston.

In the pursuit of net zero buildings and cities, the precinct scale has some key advantages for decarbonisation measures: They are large enough to achieve economies of scale, but small enough to be manageable.

The reality is that although precincts offer several opportunities for decarbonisation, low carbon solutions on this scale face major hurdles. 

That was the finding of a new report expected to be released soon, commissioned by the federal government to look at the opportunities of the precinct scale to achieve net zero targets.

Developed by engineering services firm Arup, the report focuses on how to deal with the emissions still remaining after best efforts to reduce them, on a network or building level. This is where the precinct shines.

Precinct level carbon abatement strategies include electrical energy systems (such as microgrids), energy efficiency coordination, waste management schemes and microclimate design, which could include planning for less energy use, such as trees on the street to lower the airconditioning burden in buildings.

Arup associate principal Roger Swinbourne says these are the major physical infrastructure interventions that change the energy intensity of a precinct.

Arup associate principal Roger Swinbourne

For Swinbourne, one of the authors of the report, the big challenge of the precinct scale is not the physical infrastructure or the engineering but coordinating ownership and responsibility.

When you move beyond the building scale you have a governance challenge because you have multiple stakeholders,” he told The Fifth Estate.

It’s these issues around governance that have stopped precinct scale low carbon infrastructure occurring more often.

Other sources too have pointed to the extreme difficulty of achieving precinct scale heating and cooling for similar reasons. In cases where it’s been attempted, such as in Brisbane’s CBD, it foundered getting multiple stakeholders to agree.

Where precinct solutions have worked, such as at UTS and Central Park or at Barangaroo in Sydney, it’s been due to the minimal or single entity nature of the ownership.

Buying two chillers and pipes to provide cooling for five new buildings might be cheaper and more efficient than buying five separate chillers, Swinbourne explains, but then there’s the question of who owns and maintains them, and what happens if a building is sold.

Peer-to-peer and other innovations are key

The good news is there’s been massive innovation in the governance space that helps to overcome the ownership/responsibility limitations, such as peer-to-peer trading of energy through virtual networks.

Peer-to-peer platforms allow stakeholders to “own their bit” of energy and trade it with others in a secure manner that can’t be duplicated, and is visible to everyone in the market.

Swinbourne says technologies like this are facilitators to precinct-scale decarbonisation.

Other challenges

Barangaroo works, but it’s really quite hard to replicate this sustainable precinct.

Another challenge for precinct scale projects is data management, with increased complexity opening up more opportunities for issues such as leaks or breaks that might inadvertently increase emissions.

The nature of greater complexity is that it’s also “quite easy to hide the carbon somewhere.”

All of this adds up to making a workable governance and organisational arrangement an expensive legal exercise that might, in some cases, outweigh the capital and operational savings.

Getting the incentive structure right is also important to furthering low carbon outcomes, Swinbourne says.

A microgrid, for example, can actually end up with higher emissions because the microgrid operator is actually incentivised to sell electricity. The implications over the medium to long term of a microgrid at a precinct scale is that there’s a monopoly selling electricity, with the people who bankrolled it hoping to get a good return on their investment. 

“This is where you can get in yourself in carbon trouble.”

Swinbourne says there are ways to manipulate the incentive structure favourable. For instance, energy service companies that “break the nexus between consumption of electricity and the income of the entity.”

By way of example, these companies might sell lux – the amount of light hitting your desk – rather than kilowatts per hour. With this as-a-service offering, the supplier that owns, operates and maintains the light bulbs is incentivised to put in low energy bulbs and manage them efficiently. 

Horses for courses

So, with all these roadblocks, are precinct scale solutions worth it?

While Swinbourne says there’s been some really good examples of low carbon precinct scale schemes and infrastructure, it really needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Peer-to-peer trading works well on a low density precinct, for example, but once the density increases there’s less space for generation so peer-to-peer starts to struggle.

He also says heavy precinct level infrastructure tends to stack up easier when starting from scratch.

Swinbourne also worked on Bondi Junction’s Green Infrastructure Masterplan, which considered collaborative approaches to energy, water and waste in the area. The work in the eastern Sydney township showed “light engineering” in the form of LED upgrades at the building level to be better financially compared to “heavy engineering” options, such as district level heating and cooling.

But precinct scale collaboration isn’t just about physical infrastructure. Some of the most successful precinct level decarbonisation programs require no physical engineering at all, such as the Better Building Partnership, a coalition of Sydney CBD’s top property companies coming together to improve the sustainability of the city’s commercial and public sector buildings.

“That doesn’t require any infrastructure – just the transfer of information.”

He says joint procurement saved the partnered business “a huge amount of money” without the need for a heavy engineering solution.

Buildings codes need to accommodate shared infrastructure

The report, which engaged both state and federal governments and a range of other industry stakeholders, makes several recommendations to different levels of government to help precinct scale decarbonation schemes get off the ground.

Perhaps most pertinent, according to Swinbourne, is altering building codes so that they accommodate low carbon activity at the precinct scale.

“At the moment the system is blind to the benefits … the codes need to change.”

Planning controls could also do more to drive precinct scale action, and master planning itself should also better reflect the opportunities of these solutions.

There also needs to be a whole lot of work done around energy, water and waste data management for stakeholders to feel comfortable with collaborative initiatives.

NB: A previous version of this story stated that this report was commissioned by the NSW government when it was commissioned by the federal government.

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  1. Instead of retrofitting existing urban land, why not try designing a net zero precinct on rural land/ Greenfield site? Starting with a clean slate and in single ownership would help get technology solutions working and at least justify your assertion that the precinct scale is the optimal scale to deliver infrastructure. It would make your case to the various stakeholders that this is the way to go when retrofitting in urban areas.