Boston is beautiful. I’m here attending a conference about the economics behind the downfall of the Soviet Union. But, while here, I’ve also been thinking about the energy economics of big cities. The amount of energy being used here, on the face of it, is absolutely tremendous. Thousands and thousands of lights, vehicles, trains, ships, and all manner of other human activity, all involving power. BUT—per capita energy use and environmental impact, in cities, actually tends to run lower than that of people in rural areas. It’s not too hard to see why. My wife and I were just in a packed bar and restaurant, with all manner of lights blazing away. But, there might have been a hundred people in the room, and perhaps a hundred lights. That’s one light per person—a rate about five times better than the Bruhl family probably does on a typical evening at home. Likewise, the density of people in cities makes all sorts of activity less energy-intensive, when viewed on a per-capita basis. People commute less distance to work, or they walk or ride bicycles (the bike-sharing racks here seem to be doing a thriving business—good job, Boston), or take public transportation; all less energy intensive than driving a passenger car longer distances. I’ve seen ZipCars, too, and data from these programs show that people drive them quite efficiently. Because people are so close together, deliveries of goods happen more efficiently, as does the removal of garbage or recycling. (And, HUGE piles of recycling out in front of businesses in the historic district this evening, again, good job, Boston). Large buildings have proportionally fewer outside walls per square foot of space, and are dramatically easier to heat and cool than, say, single-family homes.
Worldwide, more and more people are moving to urban areas like this, and, as counter-intuitive as it would seem, this is good for the planet, because of these very reasons—it is easier to live with a reduced environmental footprint in an urban setting. Today, more than half of the world’s people live in urban areas (link). I’m not sure these huge growing cities qualify as “progress”, but it appears that the situation could be worse.
Another very important fact can be garnered from a walk through the city—there isn’t enough room here to create the amount of renewable power that the city needs. Everyone’s darling, distributed rooftop solar, might only be able to serve a fraction of a percent of the people here, and this is true of cites everywhere. People are close together; and there just isn’t enough roof-top space, or enough space of any sort, for that matter, for enough solar panels to supply the population. So here we have a huge city, where people are living close together in a way that is actually good for the planet, a city that will have to greatly increase their dependence on renewable electricity in the future as we move away from fossil fuel, that won’t be able to make their own power. It will have to come from the countryside, just as food and materials come from areas outside of cities. This will become a source of political conflict in the future, I’m afraid, as rural places balk at the solar farms and wind towers and hydroelectric projects that will be required.
Both of these aspects—the better efficiency of urban living, and the fact that their power will have to come from somewhere outside of cities—are both big-picture ideas that we need to keep in mind as we go forward. Personally, while I enjoy a short stay, I’ll choose to do my time in the least populated places I can find. But, I’m glad there are others who clearly prefer this. And if you choose to live in a city, Boston doesn’t appear to be a bad place to be.