Issues of rising demands on electricity and its strain on the planet’s natural resources are a global problem. However, one country is paving the way towards reducing our reliance on traditional electricity sources. Forest Ray discovers how Argentina is raising the bar in sustainability through its innovative use of climate-sensible buildings – that is, smart design that makes use of the local climate
With increasing concerns over energy and climate security going hand in hand with our demand for electricity, the South American country of Argentina has set itself the admirable goal of generating 20 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Currently only two per cent of its electricity is renewable, so does this seem like an achievable goal? And just how does Argentina plan on going about it?
Architects and researchers in the Argentine city of Mendoza (main image) are developing ways to lower the demand for electricity through innovative climate-sensible buildings and urban spaces. Called ‘bioclimatic urban designs’ (to denote their relationship between their inhabitants and the local climate) these buildings are designed to take advantage of said climate and passively maximize human comfort.
So how much energy are we talking about here? Dr. Alfredo Esteves, a sustainable housing project leader at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Mendoza (shortened to CONICET in Spanish), explains that, on average, residential electricity needs account for 25–30 per cent of a city’s total demand. If widely deployed, bioclimatic urban designs could lower this number to single digits. This, he says, would make reaching that 20 per cent goal considerably easier.
The houses that Dr. Esteves and others design use spacing and orientation towards light sources, as well as heat-trapping materials, to minimize the need for a house to be heated, while simultaneously allowing it to remain cool in the summer. Think of it as super clever insulation.
The situation in Argentina, he explains, used to be that houses were designed and built as quickly as possible, to house workers moving from the countryside into cities. Over the years, Argentina’s urban migration has slowed and cycles of energy and fiscal crises have given priority to the need for affordable energy.
Parallel to the design of houses, Dr. Claudia Martinez, also of CONICET, redesigns streets and sidewalks in order to reduce air pollution. She does this through more efficient traffic flow and a reduction of the urban ‘heat island’ effect (an urban area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding areas due to factors such as people, cars, etc). She does this through the use of improved pavements and climate-adapted trees for shade. Importantly, Dr. Martinez incorporates community participation into her work. In this way, she hopes that residents will not only feel invested in their community development, but will also be more active in conservation generally and in pressuring their politicians to support sustainability efforts.
Ultimately, political support is the main obstacle to a wider rollout of bioclimatic projects. Support from the Institute of Provincial Housing and the Ministry of Infrastructure is needed to carry out any building project. Leadership turnover, however, leads to critical gaps in data acquisition from past bioclimatic housing projects, which could be used to improve and expand upon future trials.
As 2020 fast approaches, reducing electrical demand seems an increasingly logical option. How vigorously it will be pursued remains to be seen.
Here are three other cities that are taking steps to reduce their energy impact:
In contrast to Mendoza’s focus on small residential structures, Singapore goes big. Skyscrapers feature green walls and rooftops, indoor food gardens and other energy efficiency features. One reason that Singapore can afford to go big in its green designs is that, unlike Mendoza, it does not sit on any geologic fault lines. It is also a much more metropolitan place, whereas Mendoza, as an agricultural area, invests more of its capital into that sector and the rural communities that support it.
New York City
Although NYC has its own housing crisis, the bigger issue there is the affordability of available units, rather than the need for more energy-efficient ones. The city government’s biggest green infrastructure projects focus on improving stormwater management and wastewater treatment. Increasingly powerful storms and a growing population put millions of dollars of strain on the city’s ageing infrastructure.
With less name-recognition than the cities listed above, Boise is focusing on becoming one of the United States’ most livable cities. Since 2015, it has mandated that by 2030, new city buildings must be zero-net energy and that existing buildings must reduce their energy usage by 50 per cent.
Images courtesy of Getty Images