Saturday, July 4, 2009

Pioneer City 2030: What the Energy System of the Future Looks Like

PCgridphoto_300.jpgThe energy system of the future is being founded now.

New energy systems and technologies are growing on an accelerating curve:
• Buildings that are green, super-efficient and fully managed by digital technologies have become economically competitive.
• Hybrid vehicles partly propelled by electricity have emerged in the market, with plug-in vehicles coming over the next several years.
• Smart electric grids that employ digital technology to manage power supply and demand are spreading through long distance transmission and local power distribution.
• Renewable energy in the form of wind is increasingly cost competitive, and solar is projected to reach grid parity in many parts of the U.S. and world in the next decade.
• Energy efficiency and demand management are now part of the business model for power and building sectors.
• Energy storage technology has advanced to the point where it is poised for stationary applications in the grid and buildings.

These trends are converging to create a new energy system that meshes buildings, vehicles and grids in unprecedented ways that make possible the transition from fossil fuels to emerging energy resources – renewables, demand management and energy storage. This new energy system is the absolute requisite for the reductions in fossil fuel use needed to stabilize the climate and ensure global security.

New energy technologies and systems are synergistic. To realize their promise they must grow in unison. Smart grids and energy storage are needed to accommodate mass amounts of renewable energy, with its varying generation. A grid that charges large numbers of plug-in vehicle will also require a new level of smart management. Buildings must become more efficient to use renewable energy most wisely, as well as to make space in the grid to accommodate plug-in vehicles. Smart grids and smart buildings will work together to optimize power demand and efficiency.

The stimulus passed by Congress in early 2009 includes $77 billion directed to new energy areas, including major new funding for energy efficiency, green buildings, smart grids, plug-in vehicles and renewable installations. Though the money is coming through different pools, if invested wisely with a vision for the emergence of the new energy system, it can turbocharge its growth. By putting together long-term strategies for pioneering the new energy system, communities can coherently assemble stimulus funds from the different pools and offer more compelling funding proposals.

The following is offered to inspire such vision and strategies. It tells the story of Pioneer City 2030, a major city that decided two decades earlier to become carbon neutral through a community initiative to deploy new energy technologies and systems. The scenario depicts how the city’s energy picture appears in 2030, based on its leadership actions.


An American community has gained a vision. It will transform itself into a new energy community, a place where pieces of the energy puzzle are assembled in one place to demonstrate how a coordinated deployment of key energy innovations adds value to each and creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

PCcommunitymeeting_250.jpgThe community, Pioneer City, has come together in a civic engagement involving city elected and agency officials, public utility representatives, civic groups and business leaders from key sectors including building, energy and vehicles. The civic process was spurred by a common sense that Pioneer City is facing both intensifying challenges and burgeoning opportunities in the energy and economic arena:

The community, as all others, has been whipsawed by price volatility over recent years in all fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – and power rates are on the way up. There is a general desire to move to renewable alternatives that stabilize energy costs and place a firmer footing under the local economy.

The community is feeling the winds of the global economic downturn. After a boom time its building sector is suffering high unemployment rates. The area’s information technology and building materials industries are also suffering layoffs.

The community has recognized that emerging climate change threatens the city economy and environment in a number of ways, including water shortages during the summer and more severe storms during the winter accompanied by increased run-off and flooding.

The community draws part of its power from a coal-fired power plant and recognizes that a community commitment to reduce global warming emissions will require replacing the power from other sources.

Pioneer City civic leadership responds to these challenges by coming together to identify the greatest opportunities to transform the ways energy is generated, delivered and used in the community. In their work they keep their focus firmly fixed on energy transformation as a job creation opportunity – a way to provide new markets for existing firms while generating new companies and business models. Not only will the community revolutionize its own energy networks – It will use the process to provide experience for local companies that they can employ as launching pads to sell new energy goods and services in national and global markets.

The Pioneer City civic process develops two simple hallmarks of a new energy community:
1. Build everything on the firm foundation of making the most productive use of energy.
2. Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy to the greatest extent possible.

Based on those two hallmarks, civic leaders create strategies based on leading examples emerging around the U.S. and world. The strategies are designed to support and build on each other, meshing to an overall new energy community strategy.


PCGreenRoof_300.jpgPioneer City in 2009-10 created a comprehensive effort aimed at making the entire community’s building sector carbon neutral by 2030. It included advanced building codes to ratchet up efficiency to levels around 70 percent greater than new buildings in the mid-2000s, and development of a new institutional infrastructure for marketing and financing building efficiency retrofits. This included a “patient” capital pool with low interest rates, making it feasible to finance efficiency improvements with up to a 20-year payback. The marketing effort took efficiency door to door in homes and businesses, offering a full package from efficiency audits to finance and installation.

So for the past 20 years, Pioneer City has been systematically retrofitting old buildings and constructing new buildings that are increasingly efficient. A combination of natural design that makes best use of on-site resources including sunlight and rainfall, and smart building systems that manage energy and water use for greatest efficiency, has given Pioneer City a fleet of living buildings that meet top sustainability standards.

The smart buildings of 2030 partner with smart power grids to optimize operations for greatest efficiency. Intelligent building systems communicate with the grid to manage demand in response to grid needs. This has significantly reduced peak demands, thus eliminating the need for costly power infrastructure used only limited hours of the year. Smart building controls also continually adjust and tune building systems based on real-time operating information. With far more detailed power use data available than in the past, energy management has become a very valuable resource.

Many buildings now generate their own energy. Solar photovoltaic has become the cheapest source of new energy, and ground geoheat pumps increasingly supply hot water and building heating using the steady heat of the Earth a few feet below the surface. Small, building-mounted wind turbines are also now practical in many locations. Energy storage has also become ubiquitous, in the form of battery banks as well as hot water in heaters and ice in basement storage banks. Storage absorbs energy from both local and distant renewables, improving the usability and economics for their variable generation.

PCwindturbines_300.jpgPOWER NETWORKS 2030

In many cases, it has been found more economically practical to generate renewable energy on a district scale, for example in neighborhoods heavy with high rise buildings. Pioneer City has now created a number of local microgrids that share power across neighborhoods. They are powered by large solar photovoltaic installations on large commercial and industrial roofs, several utility-scale wind turbine clusters on the edge of the city, and combined heat and power plants fueled with biogas and biomass from urban waste streams. Those plants supply not only electricity, but hot water and building temperature conditioning through pipe networks that serve the central business district and other densely occupied areas. District heating and cooling substantially increases efficiency over each building having its own power plant.

Pioneer City also draws substantial renewable power from distant, central installations including wind farms, solar photovoltaic and thermal plants, and wave and tidal installations. These are delivered to the city on a smart transmission grid that has been upgraded to handle the complex power flows from varying and sometimes unpredictable renewable sources. Substantial automation and intelligence in the grid enables it to manage what is becoming an increasingly renewables-driven grid.

The smart grid, which in 2010 mostly existed at the long-distance transmission level, and even there in a piecemeal manner, is now ubiquitous in local distribution grids down to the power user level. Digital technologies now infused throughout the grid provide two-way communications capabilities. This translates into unprecedented abilities to measure and manage power flow.

With two-way communications and control, the smart grid can handle large amounts of varying renewable energies. Smart buildings, appliances and equipment are now programmed to adjust demand up and down in response to grid signals. So varying output from wind and solar farms can be automatically matched to power loads. A Pioneer City food processing plant uses surplus wind power at night to freeze its products, while refrigerators and hot water heaters throughout the city cycle down or up in response to renewable energy availability.

Digital automation also integrates the many building- and district-sited renewable installations in Pioneer City. Interconnection is now a standard procedure, reducing costs and complications. The power grid of 2030 is virtually plug-and-play.


Over the past 20 years Pioneer City has been at the forefront in the reinvention of personal mobility. Today, vehicles are different, as well as the ways people use and access them.

PC_electriccar_250.jpgCars and trucks today are highly efficient. Many cars run on pure electricity. Almost all vehicles that still employ internal combustion are hybridized and have plug-in features. The bulk of ground transportation is propelled by electricity, and Pioneer City is rich in charging stations and battery-exchange locations. The remainder is driven by advanced biofuels from waste steams and energy crops that do not compete with food.

Electrified vehicles charge in coordination with the grid. Smart systems in vehicles communicate with the grid to direct charging to off peak generation and low carbon energy resources. This reduces grid stress and improves the climate performance of vehicle fleets. By 2030, the use of plug-in vehicle batteries as energy storage for buildings and the grid has also become practical.

Today personal vehicles are only part of a larger context of clean mobility, and of declining importance. Fewer and fewer people actually own cars, and more pay a mobility services company instead that provides a range of options. People who want a personal vehicle through their service can have one, though typically it is a smaller urban car. Access to larger vehicles such as vans and trucks, even fun vehicles like sports cars and SUVs, is part of the service.

Mobility service firms work in conjunction with public transportation, so include transit passes as well as help in planning transit use. Pioneer City has worked hard to upgrade transit, and implemented smart growth strategies to create more compact and walkable communities rich in stores, services and amenities. With less need for driving, many customers are content to use car share services.


By 2030 Pioneer City has achieved a goal it set in 2010 for carbon neutrality in its energy sector. It has replaced petroleum in transportation, with cars and trucks that now run on renewable electricity and fuels. It has eliminated electricity generated by fossil fuels including coal and natural gas. By replacing fossil fuels with local and regional renewable resources, it has substantially improved circulation of dollars in the local economy. Of course, the brown cloud that once hung over the city on smoggy days is gone and public health statistics reflect this.

Because Pioneer City was an early adopter, it has also generated new businesses and jobs in new energy technologies. It is home to leading edge firms in building design and energy efficiency services delivery, as well as microgrid development and electric vehicle charging management.

By 2030 communities all over the nation and the world are looking more and more like Pioneer City, building new energy systems that mesh super-efficient buildings, plug-in vehicles and smart grids with new energy resources including renewables, demand management and storage. They are moving toward the carbon neutrality that Pioneer City has already achieved.

PC_centralpark_300.jpgSuccessful models created by Pioneer City and leading communities like it have shown the way. They have demonstrated the new energy system in action, proven its benefits, and in doing so have made a vital contribution to energy security, economic prosperity and climate stability. It started with a vision, and manifested with concerted civic action that has made Pioneer City one of the energy leaders of the 21st century.

Patrick Mazza is Research Director at Climate Solutions in Seattle, Wa. You can read more of his blogging at New Energy Nexus.

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Front Page image: xotoko