The University of Minnesota was awarded a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year in order to help scientists at the school create a team of researchers to study how urban infrastructure could adapt to the changing needs of cities.
Municipalities could benefit from the increased attention urban planning research has received, said professor Anu Ramaswami, the project’s leader and chair of the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
And as access to resources changes and environmental issues evolve, local government planners are increasingly aware that cities will need to adapt, said Daniel Zimmerle, director of the Electric Power Systems Laboratory at Colorado State University.
“I think people are recognizing … that you need to design for a time when fuel prices are higher, environmental concerns are higher,” he said.
The researchers will look for efficient, environmentally friendly and economically beneficial forms of infrastructure in areas such as utilities and food production, Ramaswami said.
Zimmerle said producing energy needs locally could help make urban areas more self-reliant.
“Local generation potentially offers you the opportunity for a resilience to keep operating in a natural disaster,” he said, adding that people have already started to appreciate the resilience local systems offer.
Additionally, Zimmerle said generating energy locally could cut down on losses encountered when transporting energy across distances. He said about 10 to 15 percent of electricity is wasted in transit.
“That’s not a trivial amount,” he said.
Whether the benefits of local systems outweigh the costs is still unknown, said Yingling Fan, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the Humphrey School.
“I think there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I don’t think there is consensus already,” she said. “That’s why we got the grant, so we can study and provide data and evidence.”
But localized utility systems are more expensive, Zimmerle said. He said the large, centralized power plants that are more common today are cheaper.
He also said as newer, more localized systems begin to be incorporated, management issues could arise, since the new methods of distributing utilities are a departure from old practices.
“It is still unclear how local systems would be integrated without causing disturbances,” Zimmerle said.