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Getting to Scale

Posted by Tom Osdoba at Apr 16, 2012 12:00 AM |
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When you consider long-term, aggressive goals for energy at a city level, it becomes obvious quickly that projects need embrace whole neighborhoods at a time to achieve the scale required for the kind of capital needed to finance clean energy systems requires a certain scale in order to make the effort.

If we are to create carbon neutral cities in our lifetimes the following three components must be aligned:

  • Policy and institutional innovations to create business models that aggregate multiple energy customers into large customer “blocks,” so that efficiency improvements, clean energy sources, and infrastructure enhancements can be done at scale and depth, with complex financing tools.
  • Organizing capital, from public and private sources, so that these large customer blocks can take action without having to front the capital investments themselves.
  • Extensive outreach, education, and public engagement to build a better appreciation of and support for these policy and institutional innovations, so that policymakers have some chance of mustering the courage to enact them.

This point of view may seem radical, but it’s also honest. Honesty seems to be the one thing that many of our current initiatives lack. If we truly care about achieving carbon neutrality – at least in the built environment – these fundamentals must become broadly accepted.

Within the New Energy Cities program, we continue to think about how setting visionary goals is central to progress. These goals shape how leaders engage the public and the way new projects are developed.

When you consider long-term, aggressive goals for energy at a city level, it becomes obvious quickly that projects need embrace whole neighborhoods at a time. This realization is reinforced when in-depth considerations of project financing are added to the conversation, since the kind of capital needed to finance clean energy systems requires a certain scale in order to make the effort.

So, where might we find glimmers of hope that there might actually be a path to carbon neutrality? On April 3-4, 2012, we participated in a discussion that included national leaders in creating neighborhood- or district-scale approaches to urban sustainability. Energy is an obvious priority, and is front and center in many of these efforts.  Let’s meet the rest of the players.

  • Portland Sustainability Institute
  • Living City Block
  • Preservation Green Lab
  • Seattle 2030 District

The Portland Sustainability Institute has coined the term Eco-Districts and aims to drive innovation around appropriate scale and long-term outcomes. They have done a tremendous job of building tools and processes to help foster district-scale approaches to critical issues. They hold an annual Summit and have begun to provide training to cities around the world.

The Living City Block initiative is similarly focused, although the initial point of engagement starts at a block scale and builds outward. This effort is most active in Denver and Brooklyn, and has a very strong focus on energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy has included Living City Block’s Denver project in its Commercial Buildings Partnership Program, providing funding to continue to advance the notion that all the buildings can work together with key partners to achieve better performance, faster. We are following the specific ways they are contributing to changing engagement, scale, and finance.

Preservation Green Lab is a leader in efforts to address the challenges of existing buildings, and is working on several fronts to understand the value of investing in improvements to existing buildings, considering neighborhood-scale projects that change the way building owners work together with a city, and producing metrics to help drive performance.

They currently are doing ground-breaking work on energy performance at a neighborhood scale, using GIS tools to map energy usage and support deep energy efficiency retrofits and district energy systems. Their work also has led to the development of a performance-based energy code for buildings, which could become an important tool for cities looking to accelerate action.

The Seattle 2030 District is a classic example of a downtown, commercial district project. Through extensive engagement of building owners in the district, this organization has set a goal of carbon neutral energy by 2030, which is aligned with the 2030 Challenge. This process is providing a very strong platform for considering efficiency improvements, infrastructure upgrades (including district energy), and renewable energy.

As these discussions produce new directions for city-led clean energy innovation, we will share those developments, and continue to provide up-to-date information about the emergence of projects that address energy issues at a district or neighborhood scale.

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