Limerick to light the way for sustainable cities in EU

Along with Trondheim in Norway, Limerick is one of two ‘lighthouse cities’ piloting +CityxChange, which aims to revolutionise how cities make and use energy

Rosie Webb, senior architect at Limerick City and County Council, and Alan Dooley, the council’s head of digital strategy. Picture: Arthur Ellis.

As the world wakes up to climate change realities, Limerick is becoming a “lighthouse city”, according to Rosie Webb, head of urban innovation at Limerick City and County Council.

In 2018, the city won €6.5 million in funding spread over five years, as part of a new EU smart cities project.

In winning this grant, Limerick was deemed the first Irish ‘lighthouse smart city’, which would develop and test integrated innovative solutions at district scale and act as advisers for its region and other cities and regions across Europe.

“Limerick is one of two EU ‘lighthouse’ cities that have been selected for a major climate-change pilot programme that will give a lead to the rest of Europe on how to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas,” Webb said.

“The EU +CityxChange Programme (Positive City Exchange) sees Limerick, along with Trondheim in Norway, chosen to roll out a project that has the potential to revolutionise how we produce and use energy in European cities and towns.”

The focus in Limerick will be on the development of a ‘community grid’ and the use of smart meters, innovation in new energy sources (including harnessing hydrokinetic energy) and storage, digital tools and citizen participation to create a ‘positive energy district’ in Limerick city centre.

“These are just some of the innovative elements that this inter-agency team are working on to combat climate issues and create a sustainable positive-energy city,” Webb said.

For Alan Dooley, the +CityxChange framework means that Limerick will be able to deal with the “very complex challenges we’re about to face from a climate perspective”. Dooley is head of digital strategy at Limerick City and County Council.

21st-century solutions

“Limerick will have live data that we can leverage to accelerate the innovation at a citizen level and have a citizen-driven solution. This is about bringing 21st-century solutions to a 21st-century problem,” he said.

+CityxChange Limerick will create a framework for a stepped approach to the creation of a DPEB (Distributed Positive Energy Block), which can be replicated by any city.

“The five participating buildings include Gardens International, Limerick Youth Services, Limerick Chamber of Commerce, Limerick General Post Office and Rooney Auctioneers,” Webb said.

“All five buildings have been fitted with metres that feed into a monitoring platform to support a community grid.

“They’re all historic buildings – this poses refurbishment challenges – but we have been working with conservation energy upgrade experts to find the best models to make these buildings energy-efficient.”

A local innovation company, GKinetics, is demonstrating how much energy can be captured with a river turbine to contribute to the energy needs of the block.

“At the heart of our work is looking at new kinds of community cooperation models to enable specific energy projects and, in a wider sense, looking at decarbonisation and how we can solve climate goals at the same time as accommodating a larger population,” Webb said.

“We have big challenges to tackle going forward but want to do that in conjunction with our citizens, to start a cooperation that we can accelerate.

“We picked the historic centre as we had been trying to activate this area and a recent assessment on vacant properties in the area found that there has been a 27 per cent reduction.

“We used to have a tax incentive for the area that hadn’t been taken up so well until we actively promoted it by setting up a one-stop shop advice clinic. It has surprised us that we have had that kind of impact already.”

The project is all about solving some of the “very complex problems” we all face in our efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and legislation in this area, according to Dooley.

“This is incredibly difficult to do when you have existing building stock and it is why it’s crucial to have a citizen-centred approach,” he said.

The Innovation Lab is a city centre space in the Georgian Innovation District, where citizens, students and volunteers can co-design and co-create solutions for better places, spaces and communities, supported by a digital platform.

“Having a shop front in the middle of the city, where we will curate events initially, is how we are going to interact with citizens to solve these problems,” Dooley said.

“We have a 3D twin of our city, so we can bring in building owners who are thinking about upgrading their buildings. We can bring them in and demonstrate what it would take in terms of retrofitting to give them a better return on their rental or make their building more energy-efficient.

“We would take the learnings out of every event and feed the knowledge back into a database. This would allow us to curate the next set of events and continue on until we have a really robust digitally managed citizen feedback loop.”

Changing behaviours

As Dooley sees it, changing citizen behaviour is not just about changing heating systems or putting in double glazing.

“We want to teach people how to change their behaviour. We are going to start slowly and try to bring everyone with us as I don’t think we will be able to solve all of these very complex issues on our own,” Dooley said.

“It can be difficult to persuade someone that they need to spend €20,000 retrofitting their home. But we can work to try and demonstrate collective value in taking these challenges on and debunk the myths surrounding some new-technology innovations and ensure that people are making decisions around something like retrofitting proactively and in a fact-based way.”

“As part of our Innovate Limerick arm, we are building a digital collaboration centre where we’ll partner with start-ups and large companies to help those start-ups get on the road.

“If we make the data we are collecting publicly available as open data, somebody out there in a university, or even someone sitting in their home, might get an idea about starting a company to deal with an energy issue.”

In a nutshell, The Innovation Lab is about “open-sourcing solutions” for the energy crisis, Dooley said.

“We want to evolve Limerick City and County Council into becoming an intelligent, data-driven council to unlock new opportunities and innovations with better actions and outcomes for our citizens. +CityxChange is going to help trigger that,” he said.

“There’s going to be a real acceleration of data required over the next decade and we might fall short in that ambition if yesterday’s solutions prevail. Here in Limerick City and County Council there’s a terrific leadership team and a group of people who are incredibly ambitious and insightful.

“Leveraging +CityxChange is going to really accelerate our ability to take on the challenges to come.”