10/25/2013 03:15 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2013

Sydney Schools Los Angeles on Sustainability

By Mark Gold and Jon Christensen

Los Angeles could learn a lot by looking across the Pacific for lessons on how to move quickly towards energy and water sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint. Allan Jones, an environmental engineer who led London's efforts to cope with climate change and has been doing the same now in Sydney for the past four years, recently visited UCLA to share Sydney's formula for success.


The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability brought Jones to UCLA for our Oppenheim Lecture series. Click here to listen to a podcast of the lecture, download a PDF of Jones's presentation, and find links to Jones's plans for Sydney.

Sydney's goals are nothing less than 100 percent renewable energy and 100 percent local water supply. And Jones is putting Sydney on a fast track to reach these goals through a combination of public-private partnerships and new policies. Sydney's sustainable city plan calls for a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And their green infrastructure plan--which features decentralized "trigeneration" plants (which generate electricity, heating, and cooling), renewable energy sources, advanced solid waste treatment (to convert waste to energy), and decentralized water treatment (to re-use wastewater)--is a blueprint for how to achieve these audacious goals in other cities, such as Los Angeles.

What is most striking about Jones's approach is that it doesn't rely on new technological breakthroughs. It is a common sense approach based on collecting and analyzing energy and water data at the parcel scale--something UCLA's California Center for Sustainable Communities is working on for LA--and then using that information to develop planning strategies and deploy today's leading edge technologies across the city at all scales from individual buildings to neighborhoods and municipal systems.

Sydney has already started creating thermal networks in neighborhoods to reduce heating and cooling costs through the use of the heat released from trigeneration plants. The city is now starting to treat wastewater and reuse it. But unlike other cities, Sydney is not treating the water to drinking water standards since people actually only drink about 2 percent of the water they normally use and it's very expensive to meet drinking water standards. Instead, Sydney is treating the water for use in dual plumbing systems that separate drinking water from other water uses. The treated wastewater is used for flushing toilets, air conditioning, and landscape watering. At this rate, Sydney may rarely if ever use a white elephant ocean desalination facility that it built during an eight-year-long drought, because the city's stalwart conservation efforts and increased water reuse may provide all the water the city now needs. And if they ever do flip the switch on desal, Jones wants the plant to be powered by the excess heat generated at an adjacent power plant, not by electricity.

One key to Jones's strategy is relying on renewable gases to provide the bulk of Sydney's energy needs. These renewable gases will come from technologies that have been used in Germany for years to turn solid waste into energy. Jones also wants to use renewable energy to create gas through water electrolysis. Imagine a wind turbine or solar panels generating energy to run electrolysis units to generate hydrogen and oxygen gases from water. The hydrogen is then pumped into the existing natural gas distribution system (natural gas can run as high as 20 percent hydrogen and still be safe). In essence, the hydrogen gas serves as a battery that stores renewable energy for use when you need it, not just when it is sunny or windy. Also, it is cheaper and more efficient to transport energy through pipelines than transmit electricity through wires.

Jones brings a pragmatic business sense to these audacious efforts. His success is based on local government partnerships with private companies. He started out by persuading the biggest landlords in Sydney to enter into "environmental upgrade agreements" that enabled landlords to make their buildings more energy and water efficient at a low cost by reducing the costs of financing improvements. Banks invested in the approach because they knew the local government was a partner in the efforts and because they were financing whole groups of buildings, not just one building at a time. Less risk led to greater investor confidence. The city also partnered with a private gas utility to distribute the renewable gases the city generates. Jones's goal is for all of Sydney's natural gas to come from renewable gases--a far cry from our own current approach here in LA where 60 percent of our gas comes from fracking.

Visiting with Jones convinced us that urban sustainability isn't some utopian pipedream. It can happen in the near future and it can happen cost effectively. The hardest part isn't developing the technologies. Most of them exist today. The hardest part is that we need public support and local and state government leadership to eliminate legal obstacles and construct the necessary economic and policy incentives to catalyze the urban transformation we desperately need to make LA sustainable.

An earlier version of this blog post was published in our column "Christensen and Gold" at LA Observed.