The following article is from an magazine published by the American
Resource links follow the text. Kathleen Pagan
July 2006 Planning (the magazine of the American Planning Association)
With the Power at Hand
Examining the merits of distributed energy.
By David Engle
It's simple logic: Your electricity and heating can be created almost
twice as efficiently when both are produced and used together onsite.
Instead of buying your power from a central plant far away - and losing
seven to 10 percent of it in long-haul transmission (while paying extra
for the privilege) - making your own localized or "distributed" energy
can tap into clean, renewable, small-scale resources close at hand.
Efficiency soars because fuel that was formerly being expended only for
heating can instead cogenerate electricity too (a process known as
combined heating and power, or CHP). The result: reduced energy
consumption and lower economic and environmental costs.
Distributed energy resources - a catch-all phrase referring to an array
of technologies - are so logical, in fact, that communities of the
future should probably be designed from the ground up, with DERs
selected and configured to suit local needs.
Doug Newman, a planner by training and currently executive director of
the Global Energy Center for Community Sustainability (GECCS) at the Gas
Technology Institute in Des Plaines, Illinois, explains the underlying
rationale: Integration of DER with sustainable urban design, he says,
"offers the U.S. an enormous opportunity to reduce our national energy
consumption and its impact on our economy and the global environment."
Moreover, our nation's past "sins" in permitting sprawling, inefficient
urban development are now partly to blame for the unflattering
distinction of having our cities consume more energy per capita than
anywhere else in the world - by a wide margin. Newman's organization
estimates that 70 percent of this energy consumption "is directly
influenced by the spatial separation of residential, commercial,
industrial, and civic land uses and by our dependence upon private
automobiles to move between them."
The good news is that we can readily improve. We can dramatically
reduce fuel consumption and air emissions through better planning. By
emphasizing more mixed use development served by convenient public
transit, and designing for high-performance DERs and shared district
energy systems, our energy "gluttony" can be brought in line, and our
cities can even serve as role models. "Planners take responsibility for
the energy-related impacts of our work," Newman says.
Putting words into action, Newman's organization and a team of city
planners, architects, engineers, and developers are now formulating just
such "energy-smart" designs for three large-scale developments to be
built on 1,500 acres in Chula Vista, California, near San Diego. They're
the first three in a series of high-efficiency, low-impact communities
planned for a 6,000-acre tract of land that will eventually house more
than 70,000 residents.
In launching this extraordinary initiative, the city of Chula Vista
aims to become a national and global model of community-scale energy
efficiency and sustainable resources management. A long list of
co-participants includes the California Energy Commission and the U.S.
Department of Energy.
DERs for meeting peak demand
Apart from such visionary undertakings, more immediate and critical
energy-supply issues are also spurring interest in DER. Specifically,
there's a looming problem with electrical supply and demand: In some
locales the latter is now outstripping both the supply of power and the
capacity of transmission lines to deliver it. For example, New York, Las
Vegas, Boston, San Diego, and other fast-growing cities "are facing
incredible challenges in terms of providing electricity on-peak" - that
is, the busiest weekday hours, notes John Kelly, executive director of
the Distributed and Sustainable Energy Resources Center at the Gas
Technology Institute. Over the next 20 years, he adds, "New York City
alone will need another 3,000 megawatts" from multiple new sources.
The problem isn't simply rising demand, but the exorbitant cost
incurred in serving these occasional peak loads. Electricity from
special peaking plants must be transported, often across long distances,
to serve urban customers for only a few hours a day - yet plant overhead
continues round the clock. Moreover, inbound transmission lines are
already overtaxed, and it's getting tough to find sites for new plants.
The most viable solution, Kelly says, is for urban areas to undertake
"something very different" in terms of power strategizing: They must
learn to rely less on central power stations and more on "moderate-scale
CHP in the one- to 10-megawatt range" - that is, on distributed energy.
A different breed
More about the public benefits of DER later.First, consider the goals
and benefits being sought by the onsite generation system's owner. There
are several, even beyond the CHP efficiencies described above. The
following is an example that is probably typical of thousands of DERs
that are now churning out kilowatts nationwide.
A factory or office building is equipped with a natural gas-fueled
engine capable of yielding up to several megawatts. (One megawatt is
roughly the power needed for 1,000 homes.) From this, the system owner
immediately gains the peace of mind derived from much-needed backup
power - a hedge against grid blackouts or other failures.
Second - and often of significant economic value: The generator can
serve as either a primary or secondary power resource to meet peak-load
conditions - the time of day when the utility's kilowatt-per-hour rates
Third, by having the power produced onsite, the owner eliminates the
utility line item charges for long-range transmission and distribution.
According to a study conducted by the Gas Technology Institute several
years ago, national kilowatt-per-hour rates then averaged about seven
cents; of this, only two cents went for generation, while nearly five
cents were eaten up by transmission and distribution.
What's the combined value?
Through prudent energy resource scheduling, a skillful facility manager
might easily trim off enough from local utility bills to pay back the
investment surprisingly quickly - although the timeframe varies widely.
A break-even point may arrive within a few years if local electric rates
remain high and the cost of natural gas is low. (Currently, gas prices
are high and are expected to remain so indefinitely.) On the whole,
assuming reasonably stable fuel markets and climate conditions, the
owner might easily recoup all costs and then begin to save many
thousands or even millions of dollars on energy bills over the course of
the equipment's typical 20-year life-cycle.
Better still, if the engine runs extensively, it's occasionally
possible for the owner not only to escape the high electric rates of the
utility company, but to receive compensation from it, via
"net-metering." In such arrangements, the surplus power that is
generated on the site is fed back to the local electric grid; the
utility company's meter spins the opposite way.
Even if local market conditions are less favorable, an investment in
onsite power may turn out well anyway if the CHP efficiencies can be
extended: Again, the fuel that is already being purchased to provide
heating at a facility is now providing electrical generation first. The
generator's engine exhaust heat is being captured to use as before.
Sweetening the value even more, besides doing this double duty, the
exhaust heat can often be channeled to produce combined cooling,
heating, and power (CCHP ) because heat is also usually required in
chilling cycles. These "tri-generation" designs bring efficiency rates
of 80 or 90 percent - or about double the norm.
There's also a significant negative side to the equation, of course.
The owner of onsite power generation must pay the cost of operation and
maintenance; deal with equipment failure; gamble on future fuel and
electricity "spark-spreads" (price differentials); bear the
interconnection costs and standby charges imposed by the utility; and
foot the bill for emissions controls, which can be expensive. These
factors in combination can pose serious challenges to ownership.
Finally, note that, while this CHP scenario represents the most typical
DER array, other technologies abound. Renewable solar photovoltaics,
wind turbines, and fuel cells are obviously increasingly important
players in the mix.
Many thousands of distributed energy resources are now at work
nationwide, typically in industrial plants (plastics, chemicals,
painting, petroleum refining, food processing, laundries), and in
residential or quasi-residential facilities (hotels, campuses, detention
centers, nursing homes, hospitals). Multikilowatt generators also adjoin
hundreds of landfills and wastewater treatment plants, where they tap
renewable methane from decomposing waste; they can contribute
substantially to community power needs.
At many federal government sites, particularly military bases,
distributed energy is becoming almost a standard approach to saving
utility costs and improving energy efficiency. Public buildings in sunny
regions also tend to make ideal showcases for solar photovoltaics and
other renewable energy systems; in these cases, the high initial cost
can be more readily justified than in the private sector.
Public benefits are many
Now, back to the attractiveness and value of onsite energy to
communities and planners.
Besides their importance in increasing the local supply of electricity,
other significant benefits that the industry touts are: cost deferral
(postponing the construction of expensive new power plants or
substations); transmission and distribution relief; sometimes (although
not always) reduced net pollution emissions with CHP; improved fuel
efficiency; easy integration of clean renewable energy sources such as
solar photovoltaics; and much-prized localized control.
By virtue of their diversification and redundancy, DERs can also
enhance local energy security and public safety by mitigating the
negative consequence of power outages, brownouts, and voltage
interruptions. The buzzword here is energy surety, a concept first
applied decades ago for the rigorous needs of nuclear plants and in
weapons maintenance. "Surety" actually encompasses "energy safety,
security, and reliability," says David Menicucci, who oversees energy
surety research at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico; his primary
client is the U.S Department of Defense.
Virtually every military base, he notes, now enjoys some energy surety
from distributed energy. He thinks civilian communities could also
benefit, just as the military now does, but they might have to scrap the
decades-old utility-grid model and replace it with a more flexible
Still another benefit: DERs potentially enable communities to enjoy
choice in the matter of power generation. Although the eclipse of the
utilities' monopoly is still a long way off, there's a slow but
encouraging trend toward more flexibility and options. On this score,
recent regulatory moves in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio,
and Rhode Island now allow cities and towns to aggregate the local
electricity loads of homes, businesses, and the public sector, and then
to shop among a range of energy solutions. Given the rise of laws
favoring "community choice aggregation," well-informed planners would
seem well-suited to make future decisions about energy.
Are they prepared for the change?
Ingrid Kelley - who two years ago helped to draft APA's policy on
energy - suggests that "most planners are still relatively unequipped"
to address energy-related zoning issues pertaining to, say, wind turbine
ordinances or dairy farm biogas. In her experience, she adds,
graduate-level planning programs do not yet require courses on energy,
let alone on distributed energy.
Several new resources are becoming available to help bridge the
knowledge gap. One is the new energy and planning section of Planning
and Urban Design Standards, written by Doug Newman. The book was
published this spring by John Wiley and Sons (and edited by Bill Klein,
AICP, and Megan Lewis, AICP, of the APA staff).
A second development is the launching this March of what Newman
describes as "a national research and training collaborative dedicated
to energy-smart community development." The National Energy Center for
Sustainable Communities facilitates research and training initiatives
between San Diego State University, the University of California at San
Diego, and other universities and research institutions nationwide.
Newman's GECCS, SDSU's Center for Energy Studies, and the city of Chula
Vista are participants.
The new center's mission will be to encourage the development of
"practical tools and training for planning professionals and
developers," says Newman.
Eventually, the NECSC will become part of the national technology
demonstration site for sustainable community development in Chula Vista.
In effect, the whole city will become a DER showcase. On display at
sites around the city will be CHP, CCHP, "renewable energy, district
energy, and demand-response technologies in upwards of 15 to 20 separate
technology demonstrations," Newman says.
Participating students and researchers will be able "to install,
monitor, and verify the operational energy efficiency and emissions
performance" of DER technologies "in typical municipal and community
applications," he adds. Local officials and developers will be invited
"to come and see for themselves how these systems operate."
Meanwhile, those interested in acquiring the knowledge and skills
needed to participate in community energy planning can enroll for
academically accredited training at the adjacent NECSC facility.
All of this is critically needed now, Newman says, in light of the
nation's almost frantic pace of urban redevelopment. This pace is
projected to continue for decades. We are, he says, "literally
rebuilding" our cities - and we have a chance to do it right this time.
David Engle is a frequent contributor to Distributed Energy magazine.
Sidebar: Hydroexcavation Comes of Age
Sidebar: A Nuts and Bolts Glossary
Sidebar: A Professional Focus
Images: Top - In Chula Vista, California, innovations include
"energy-smart" designs. Photo by Mike Armbrust. Bottom - Acrion
Technologies converts landfill gas to liquefied methane truck fuel at
its demonstration site at the Rutgers EcoComplex environmental research
and extension center. Photo courtesy Mack Trucks Inc., Acrion
Technologies, Air Products, CHART Industries.
Online. Learn about the Gas Technology Institute at
Chula Vista's National Energy Research Center is described on the
"What's New" page at www.ci.chula-vista.ca.us.
APA's energy policy is at www.planning.org/policyguides.
Find links at the online reference library at
See the U.S. Department of Energy website for material on energy
efficiency and renewable energy: www.eere.energy.gov.
Industry groups. See U.S. Combined Heating and Power Association:
World Alliance for Decentralized Energy: www.localpower.org
California Alliance for Distributed Energy Resources: www.cader.org
Trade magazines. These include Distributed Energy,
www.distributedenergy.com, and Cogeneration and Online Power
Kathleen Walston Pagan, AICP, Senior Planner
Alachua County Dept. of Growth Management
10-SW 2nd Ave., 3rd Floor
Gainesville, FL 32601-6294
(352) 374-5249, Ext. 2225 Phone
Click here to subscribe to the Alachua County Community Update
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