The BP Urban Energy Systems project at Imperial will explore how money and energy could be saved in the future if cities integrated the systems that supply them with resources.
The project was announced today at the launch of Imperial's Energy Futures Lab, which aims to play a major role in setting the energy agenda over the next 20 years.
The Urban Energy Systems project is the first to try to document and understand in detail how energy, people and materials flow through a city. The researchers aim to use this information to improve the efficiency of both existing and new-built cities.
The project will analyse how much benefit would result if a whole city optimised its use of resources such as power, heating, transport and water, for example by heating homes with the heat from waste water or by arranging residential and business areas to reduce commuting traffic.
It will also investigate the energy lessons to be drawn from the differences between cities such as London, New York, and Beijing.
Explaining that 80% of the world's population is projected to be living in cities by 2030, Professor David Fisk, Royal Academy of Engineering Professor of Sustainable Development and co-director of the project, said: "Reducing the amount of urban energy wasted is critically important if we want to tackle diminishing natural resources and climate change.
"We're going to try to find out what savings could be achieved if whole cities organised themselves to integrate their energy use. The savings from optimisation could be huge - we know that when integrated systems are used by industry, businesses can save as much as 50% of their resources," he added.
Professor Julia King, Principal of the Faculty of Engineering, added: "It is a major undertaking to bring together all the diverse data we will need to explore the impact that established and developing cities have on global energy consumption. We are very excited to be collaborating with BP on such an important piece of research.
"We look forward to being able to model the effects of potential changes to the way our cities use energy on the world's energy consumption, as part of defining a more sustainable future," she added.
Imperial will shortly be recruiting researchers for the project. It will involve around ten academics, six post-doctoral researchers and seven PhD students from engineering, life sciences and business working together.
Dr Steve Koonin, BP's chief scientist, said: "BP has a long history of productive collaboration with Imperial. We are very excited about this new, pioneering effort to truly understand, model, and optimise the workings of cities. Results from this research will help the world make better use of the energy we provide."
The research will draw heavily on Imperial's expertise in modelling complex systems. The researchers will include multiple parameters in their models including superstructures of technology; business and policy alternatives; capabilities of existing and novel technology; existing and novel supply strategies and novel management systems. They will also explore the business models that would enable a city to achieve optimisation.
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