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Generating the Post-Carbon City

Clean energy cities will require changes in both policy and technology.

by Dr. Stephanie Pincetl / June 11, 2014

The harnessing of fossil fuels of the last century and a half has enabled the enormous shift of human populations to cities that we are experiencing today. For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than the countryside. Carbon energy has enabled this shift and allowed societies to achieve levels of economic prosperity and consumption never experienced before.

Yet we face a need for transformation toward renewable sources of energy, and conserving other resources like water, as the very success of applying fossil energy is undermining the viability of the modern age. Going forward, as cities work to build more sustainable and resilient communities, the soft infrastructure – the ideas, laws, and policies – that has served us since the industrial age, must be reconsidered. In essence we must begin to plan and implement a post-carbon city and do so through planning our future structure.

The Soft Infrastructure of Energy

The way in which soft infrastructures of regulation, codes, conventions and laws interact with the hard infrastructures of pipes, wires, roads and buildings needs to be unraveled in order to help us transition off our current dependencies and toward new infrastructures. Urban hard and soft infrastructure is made up of many components and changes slowly over time.

The basic architecture of the city usually remains the same, due to zoning codes, soft infrastructure rules, roads, sewage connections and other infrastructure that has been built to deliver services 24/7. This architecture is organized by the segregation of land uses: single family, multiple family, commercial, institutional, industrial – a legacy of the turn of the 20th century when housing was built next to industrial sites, when roads were not paved so that housing was exposed to dust, and there was little or no infrastructure to capture runoff or sewage.

Such urban environments contributed to suburbanization for those who could afford to leave the inner city, and further segregation of land uses. The structure of this new urban form led to reliance on streetcars, then the automobile, and over time, less livable neighborhoods due to the distances between living, work and services. Today we are seeing a slow questioning of this land use pattern so people can enjoy less automobile-dependent lifestyles and facilitate a transition toward a city that relies on renewable sources of energy. This means changes in the fundamental structure of a city and changes in soft infrastructures of zoning, building, and road building codes and conventions.

Many parts of the nation’s infrastructure grid are old, and need replacement or updating, as evidenced by ASCE’s D+ grade for the nation’s infrastructure as a whole. However, the deteriorated state of infrastructure also offers opportunities for fundamental change. The first step in doing this means modernizing the soft infrastructure of cities. This first step can prove a difficult one to take, however, given the tangled nature of regulatory authority over infrastructure.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for one, has jurisdiction over interstate electricity sales, wholesale electric rates, hydroelectric licensing, natural gas pricing and oil pipeline rates among other responsibilities. Organizations like state public utilities commissions (PUC) set rates for investor-owned utilities, which can require conservation investments and new technologies and programs to pave the way for renewable electricity generation by requiring utilities to provide a certain percentage of their fuel mix to be provided by renewables.

Meanwhile, state public utilities regulate private water companies and can require them to deploy conservation programs to reduce water use. Codes for water quality have been developed and are enforced by health departments, state water departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. These entities have required water delivering entities as well as wastewater managers to implement standards to protect public health.

Cities, too, have their own building codes, road specifications, and other infrastructure rules, regulations, rates, policies and procedures. On top of it all, some infrastructures – energy, for example – coexist and interact at federal, state and local levels.

“That’s part of the issue,” said Susan Mays, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Initiatives at CH2M Hill. “You’ve got the regulatory community that is sort of separate from the city and what happens is that connection back to the local community becomes a challenge.”

For a renewable and resilient energy system to develop, all of these different nested and tiered regulatory structures and agreements must co-evolve.

The Disruption of Distribution

In the energy realm, renewables such as solar and wind are increasingly coming on line, fitting uneasily in the existing grid, as well as in the soft infrastructures of habit, regulatory oversight and business models. Change is difficult; alternative renewable energy has been developed by both the conventional utilities, but also by energy entrepreneurs who wish to sell the new power to the utilities. Distribution infrastructure, and distributed generation solar systems, make this kind of grid integration even more complex as utilities have to deal with multiple individuals and systems.

The Edison Electric Institute has referred to alternative energy and distributed generation as a “disruptive technology” due to the potential impact on the utility business model and the problems of integrating new energy producers who generate at different times of day.

Yet despite the disruptive nature of renewables and distributed generation, the Governing Institute survey found that 63 percent of respondents said new generation facilities are needed to support more livable cities. Forty-five percent said distribution was equally as important, and 49 percent of respondents said their jurisdiction’s existing energy infrastructure does not meets current needs.

Distributed generation is growing, but the disruptive technology problem and lack of flexibility of the grid to integrate energy produced by solar means the hard infrastructure of electricity distribution must be upgraded and altered to do so. We know that power surges during the day may cause stress on the system, and storage is needed for the night. Here there are promising ideas and technologies, including the recent proposal by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, and Lyndon Rive, CEO of Solar City to build a massive, 10 million square-foot battery factory for energy storage.

“It is going to be a really giant facility,” Musk told investors during a February conference call. “We are doing something that’s comparable to all lithium-ion production in the world in one factory.”

But to move forward, both Musk and Rive have stressed the importance of thoughtful regulation – a component of soft infrastructure – for their success. Regulation (or perhaps an over-abundance of it) may serve as a clue why in March, Tesla, a California-based company, crossed the Golden State of its list of potential sites to build the $5 billion battery factory, choosing instead to focus on Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas – states with a reputation as more business-friendly. Though the company gave no official reason for bypassing its home state, a March 7 feature in the Los Angeles Times points to the very expensive and very bureaucratic nature of doing business in California.

Fossil Fuel’s Evolving Role

Presently, renewable energy does little to alleviate the pressure to maintain grid reliability. This has led to continued reliance on back up generation by fossil fuels, such as natural gas, or even diesel engines. For example, with the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California, the California PUC permitted new natural gas peaker power plants – plants that only operate when demand is at its peak. This undermines a transition to a more decentralized, distributed generation grid organization by baking carbon into the grid. There are many motivations for such a policy but there is no doubt it slows the adoption of renewable solutions for energy reliability.

One alternative would be to match electricity use by meter, solar capacity and feeder and load capacity. By carefully targeting distributed solar investments to beef up the grid where load capacities are weak and summer demand is high, coupled with new battery backup technologies, fossil generation backup would be less necessary. One issue, however, is the lack of data reporting. Few places in the country report energy use at the meter level, inhibiting sophisticated energy planning, energy efficiency investments (and their tracking over time), as well as data on the distribution grid at a neighborhood or distribution substations. More transparency at this level would make energy planning more effective.

Building Soft Infrastructure Standards

While renewable energy advocates are understandably gung-ho about deploying new technology quickly, the regulatory and policy environment operates at a much more deliberate pace. Localities are often more agile than state legislatures, which is why cities are ideal laboratories for new energy technologies. However, states wield a mighty big stick in energy policy decision-making. On the bright side, many legislatures are actively working toward establishing soft infrastructure standards that will help chart a cleaner course going forward.

In Michigan, for example, legislation specific to waste energy recovery – e.g. capturing and repurposing waste heat or regenerative braking technology – is being consider. House Bill 5205, introduced in December, aims to “promote the development of clean energy, renewable energy, and energy optimization through the implementation of a clean, renewable, and energy efficient standard.”

In California, the state’s recycling agency, CalRecycle, has begun hosting public workshops to gather data about how it might be able to broaden efforts to incorporate energy recovery technology as well. Energy recovery is a key part of the state’s waste management plan, and an essential complement to California’s increased recycling efforts. According to the American Chemistry Council, CalRecycle typifies what policy makers should do – and that is encouraging policies that both maximize recycling and then encourage energy recovery.

Whether it’s renewable energy, waste energy recovery, or any other new technology, if these systems are to serve as a source of constant and substantial electricity they will require zoning and building codes and health and safety codes to in order to evolve and to allow this system to be regulated. Batteries, for example, are a pivotal technology that promises to fundamentally change energy systems. But batteries as we know them today can overheat, catch on fire and/or explode. Having batteries in buildings distributed across the landscape will require the evolution of safety codes to ensure they will not cause a hazard.

New building regulations requiring better energy performance are also part of the soft infrastructure. The California Energy Commission is requiring all new residential buildings after 2020 to be Zero Net Energy buildings. The technology to do so exists and is proven. In March, the University of California, Davis unveiled a 2,000 square-foot, zero net energy house as part of its West Village planned community, the largest such planned housing development in the United States. Everything from solar to geothermal to LED lighting and even advanced concrete makes the house generate more energy than it consumes. These technologies will offer consumers control over how their homes both use and produce energy.

Cities across the country are adopting green building standards, either those of the Green Building Council or their own, which is altering the hard infrastructure of development. In fact, according to the EPA, more than 275 cities, counties, tribes and states have created building codes or building programs to increase the environmental and health performance of their communities.

Historically, soft and hard infrastructures have reinforced each other over time and have created interdependencies. As cities and regions work toward becoming smarter, these interdependencies can be leveraged by applying technology to better understand how they are connected. Linking the built infrastructure with sustainability goals of making less energy- and materials-intensive cities is of vital importance and, as such, will require changes in not only hard and soft infrastructures but in political leadership and attitude.

Dr. Stephanie Pincetl is a Professor in Residence and founding Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment. Dr. Pincetl has written extensively about land use in California, environmental justice, habitat conservation efforts, water and energy policy. Her book, Transforming California, the Political History of Land Use in the State, is the definitive work on land use politics and policies of California. Dr. Pincetl has a PhD in Urban Planning and teaches at UCLA.

 This story was originally published by FutureStructure

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