ARL Projekt

Smart grids – smart cities? International Academic Working Group

Background

The liberalisation and Europeanisation of electricity markets, climate mitigation policies, and the increasing competitiveness of renewable energy technologies are driving fundamental transitions of European power grids at all levels. This restructuring often results in locational shifts of energy generation within the individual countries (often far away from the major load centres) and has considerable spatial impacts. It not only changes the spatial topology of electricity networks and interferes with land uses, but it also shapes a whole host of spatial relations, including forms of integration, exclusion, bypassing, and proximity. The spatial governance and planning of electricity supply can no longer treat electricity as a homogeneous commodity, but instead has to address the qualities of electricity supply more systematically—the availability of electricity in peak hours and in load centres (or its surplus in off-peak periods and in load peripheries), its low carbon credentials, its capacities to be stored, and its system reliability, among other issues. We thus need to understand how the changing nature of energy networks and economies reshapes forms of socio-spatial order, politics and inequalities—all of which have implications for spatial governance and planning.

Taking advantage of the accelerated innovation in and market diffusion of both renewable energy generation and information and communication technologies (ICTs), the EU Commission and many national governments are currently promoting the development of smart grids through numerous programmes and research initiatives. Such smart grids come in all spatial shapes and sizes. They can involve smart parts of large transmission networks or decentralised ‘island’ systems in urban areas or rural communities. Smart grids imply some level of ‘in time’ or interactive forms of production and consumption. Interesting dimensions of those grids include the ways in which they are being used to decarbonise electricity supply use and to establish more systematic management of the electricity load (spatially by balancing the load centres and peripheries and temporally by balancing peak and off-peak periods); and the ways that they integrate smart meters and new energy storage facilities.

Aims and research questions of the international academic working group (IAK)

Based on recent interest in research and practice on the issues of ‘smart grids’ and ‘smart cities’, the German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (ARL) will investigate the changing spatialities invoked by the roll-out of smart grids. The objective of the IAK is to explore and to understand how this socio-technical shift from ‘linear’ to more ‘circular’ forms of electricity provision is reordering socio-spatial relations and land use patterns. Does the increasing socio-technical diversity of energy supply and use provide tailor-made solutions for specific locations, or does it invoke splintered urban and regional geographies? What are the resulting challenges for spatial governance and planning faced by heterogeneous planning systems in the member states in the context of the weak institutionalisation of spatial planning at the European level? The European expert group will investigate spatial variation and implications of the development of smart grids in Europe. Understanding grids as political terrains and conflict zones, or as junctions that mediate particular socio-spatial relations and land use patterns, is seen as a rewarding research focus. Questions to be addressed include:

  • Where, by whom, and with what aims are smart grids being developed?
  • How are they integrated with and related to one another (e.g. vertically, horizontally, through different markets, political constituencies, transnational agencies/networks)?
  • Which new socio-technical arrangements emerge, and how do they change urban places, urban land uses and metabolisms, and the spatial relationships within and between cities (and with their sub/urban hinterlands)?
  • To what degree does the development of smart grids shape or even replace the extension of the European transmission grid (and vice versa)?
  • Which urban and infrastructural vulnerabilities (risks of urban blackouts, cyber attacks etc.) are associated with the increasing interconnectedness between electricity grids and ICTs?
  • How can, and should, the socio-technical transformation of grids be governed at different policy levels?
  • And finally, which lessons can be drawn for current debates on (the governance of) ‘smart cities’ or ‘smart regions’?

Organisation

The international academic working group will meet for two to three workshops a year. Meetings will be held at various locations across Europe, mainly where group members are located. The group will consist of up to twelve permanent expert members, complemented by invited experts relevant to and originating from the meeting locations (particularly officials and practitioners from energy utilities, urban and regional governments, energy agencies, technology and consultancy firms, academic scholars, and the like.). Open meetings with the participation of relevant local stakeholders and scholars are possible to promote exchange and communication across Europe. The results will be published in a theme-issue of a peer-reviewed international journal, and, in aggregate form, via communication channels of the ARL.