The future of housing: zero-carbon and affordable

The future of housing: zero-carbon and affordable

Finalists in UN-Habitat’s Climate Smart Cities Challenge vie for 100,000 Euros per team, calling on the expertise of partner ABB to help develop pilot demonstrations for the future of affordable, zero-carbon housing, starting in Bristol, UK.

Answering the climate and housing crisis in Bristol, UK

With 449,300 residents, Bristol is one of 11 “Core Cities” in the UK, working together to “create a stronger, fairer economy and society”, and which together account for 25% of the national economy and are home to nearly a third of the UK population. Bristol was also one of the first cities in the UK to declare a climate emergency, and it has since pledged to achieve net zero by 2030. Both its status as a Core City and commitment to net zero make Bristol an ideal candidate to spearhead national and even global climate action.

However, studies show that the city will need to reduce emissions at 1.6 times the current rate, in order to attain net zero by 2030. Right now, 40% of its emissions come from building operations and construction.

At the same time, the city faces a growing housing crisis. One in 170 Bristol residents lacks permanent housing. Over 15,000 Bristol families are on the waiting list for housing, and 800 more are in temporary housing – a housing deficit that can only swell as the population increases. To remedy this, Bristol aims to create 24,000 new affordable homes by 2050. At first glance, it looks like a reasonable goal.

But there’s a catch: those new homes must also be zero-carbon, if Bristol wants to meet its 2030 net zero goal. In fact, Bristol will need to make not only that new housing but also most buildings in the city zero-carbon, while also redressing social inequality by making the housing affordable.

If you are suddenly imagining 3D-printed huts and prefabricated mini-homes, think again. The solution to affordable, zero-carbon housing is much closer to home.

Bristol becomes a UN-Habitat demonstration city to tackle its housing challenge

With no time to lose on half measures, city leaders (Bristol City Council, Bristol One City and Bristol Housing Festival) seized the opportunity to make Bristol one of the demonstration cities for UN-Habitat’s global Climate Smart Cities Challenge (CSCC), an open innovation competition launched in November 2021, at the EXPO in Dubai.

The right solution at the right time, the CSCC aims to produce real-life, working demos of either housing or mobility that is both affordable and zero-carbon, in four very different cities. At the end of 2021, the CSCC invited startups, scaleups and more established players from all over the world to apply for one of four challenges – in Bogotá, Colombia; Bristol, UK; Curitiba, Brazil; and Makindye Ssabagabo, Uganda.

Then from January to April 25th of this year, 45 finalists had the chance to form teams with other finalists and submit their city challenge proposals. This June, at the UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum in Katowice, Poland, the CSCC will announce the four winning teams, one for each city. Each winning team will receive up to 100,000 Euros (400,000 Euros in total) as seed money to build a real-world system demonstration by the end of 2023. The CSCC will also invite winning teams to pitch their pilots to multilateral donors, investment funds, and development banks for additional funding.

Bristol technology and finance deep dive

To prepare their submissions, finalists are invited to deep dives and coaching sessions with the CSCC’s industry partners.

For the Bristol challenge, CSCC invited ABB Electrification Head of Ventures Malin Carlstrom, Smart Buildings Digital Innovation Manager Dirk John, and Smart Buildings Strategy and Business Development Manager Krassimir Gurov to present a zero-carbon technology and finance deep dive.

First on the agenda was a look behind the energy meter, because getting to zero emissions is not simply a matter of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. It also requires cutting-edge digital solutions to manage on-site renewable energy generation, storage, and use. And that, in short, is the ABB “Mission to Zero™” blueprint, a scalable, flexible model for making any kind of building – from a single home to a commercial high rise, factory, or campus – energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral.

Digitalization is particularly critical. At the most basic level, only digital solutions can manage both the irregularity and the sheer number of distributed renewable energy resources (DERs) like wind and solar, without wasting energy. In addition, the demand for electricity is rising each year – and expected to double by 2050 – thanks largely to electric vehicles (EVs), electric heating and cooling in buildings, and electrified industry processes. We need digital automation to optimize timing and levels for charging, heating and cooling, so that either direct or stored renewable energy can be used, rather than fossil fuels.

The new coupling of affordability and zero-carbon

Historically, the above have not been affordable housing technologies, but as they mature and become part of a digitalized network, that is changing.

In fact, the ABB “Mission to Zero” blueprint marks the first step towards an inevitable coupling of decarbonization and affordable housing, because it’s not just about using energy. It’s about the evolution of residents from consumer to prosumer. Generating your own renewable energy on site, and using digital tools to manage it, allows you to use your house or apartment not just to consume electricity, but to move clean electricity from your solar panels to your storage battery, from there to your EV, or even to sell it to the power grid.

The next step is for manufacturers, investors, and homeowners to fully embrace new finance models like XaaS (anything as a service) that dispense with capital outlays altogether. Instead of buying your solar panels, batteries, and EV chargers, you pay a modest monthly subscription fee to use them, just as you do for your smartphone. Or you could pay only exactly when you use them. Or, in some more revolutionary business models, you could pay nothing, except the cost savings you get from using the equipment to save energy.

For example, ABB’s partner Brainbox AI offers AI solutions to retrofit commercial buildings, on a subscription basis. Their software analyzes building data in real time, and immediately makes energy-efficiency improvements, slashing energy use by up to 40%, and reducing emissions in the same step. The only thing users pay is part of the cost savings from reducing their energy use. In other words, instead of losing money, they actually save money.

These kinds of XaaS, outcome-based business models are only in their infancy. As they become more mainstream, and cover the full suite of building materials, DERs and energy storage, the potential for affordable, zero-carbon housing for all begins to crystallize.

Scaling up for net zero citywide

Bristol, like all cities, needs solutions that are scalable, flexible, and commercially viable. Getting to net zero by 2030 in Bristol or in any other city is going to require more than a handful of zero-carbon homes. It’s going to require a citywide transformation. The strength of the ABB “Mission to Zero” blueprint of DERs, battery storage, EV charging, and digitalization is its scalability and modularity. You can retrofit one piece at a time, or all at once, or build an entire carbon-neutral campus from scratch. Combine that with revolutionary business models, and an accelerated transformation is very plausible.

This is the future, not only of affordable, zero-carbon housing, but of real estate in general. The EU will shortly update its Energy Performance of Buildings Directive to require a certain percentage of buildings in each of its 27 member states to achieve minimum sustainability standards. Other parts of the world will follow suit. The future is very near, when you will not be able to sell or rent property that is not energy self-sufficient, carbon-neutral, and cost-efficient. It is also a future in which we come closer to realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11, to make cities everywhere ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

“It is crucial to rethink the way we design, manage, and plan our cities, to enable them to perform in a way that contributes to meet the target of a carbon-free world. The Climate Smart Cities Challenge provides a platform for collaboration and co-creation, to find innovative solutions that contribute to a better urban future,” said UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif.



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