In sustainable design circles, we have become hugely focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy generation as the panacea to our climate change woes. And while there is huge merit in this, it doesn't tell the whole story. Here in sunny SA, the degree to which we are either locked into a high-carbon future or not depends hugely on how many new coal-fired power stations we build. Once built, these huge (4.8GW) power stations will operate at a relatively constant level, with variance in the national demand being taken up by more flexible generation (such as gas turbines or hydro, which are also typically lower in carbon emissions). Carbon emissions from electricity in SA come in of power stations, not kWh.
The current integrated resources plan provides the planned mix of energy in SA for the next 20-40 years. Right now that mix includes the construction of Medupi and Kusile power stations (as well as an increase in our nuclear power provision with its associated issues). From a carbon reduction point of view, we have missed the boat on Medupi - it is nearly complete and commissioning will begin in 2012. However, we still have an opportunity to address Kusile, and in terms of our long term carbon mitigation, avoiding the construction of Kusile must be the highest priority for any party claiming to strive for a low-carbon future.
The economic growth model currently pursued requires new generation capacity to come online faster than currently planned, so the political pressure to get large generation projects across the line is huge. The IRP includes an allowance for renewable energy, and one option appears to be an increase in the RE allocation. However the current debacle on the renewable energy feed-in tariff (REFIT) is likely to slow that process quite significantly.
So one of the only ways Kusile can be avoided in the time frames which are a reality, and our low-carbon path can be secured is if our urban spaces become significant decentralised generators of low-carbon or renewable electricity; not just for their own operations, but as distributed power networks able to power our cities. We need restorative buildings which will be both sources of wealth and sources of clean energy.
Our modern approach to rewarding sustainable design in the built environment is on a project by project basis. Boundaries of influence are drawn around each site and projects are rewarded on that basis. This can exclude restorative buildings as they seldom fit the neat boxes of project boundaries which would be a great shame.