Solar Energy Shines its Way into the Mainstream

SolarPanelInstallationWebNews Flash! The more electricity generated from renewable sources, such as solar, the less need there is to “build big new power plants and transmission lines.” Yes, that’s exactly the point of why this country should invest in solar technologies, and why many consumers already have invested in solar panels for their homes and businesses. “Going solar” saves consumers money.

In theory, that is.

What’s the problem?

When rates are tied to profits, using less electricity means a lower cost to consumers and lower profits for utilities. Some utilities are trying to recoup some of those losses by eliminating some of the incentives to consumers that encourage the switch to renewable sources of energy. Some utilities claim that there is a certain fixed cost to maintain the overall energy infrastructure system, and that solar customers are not paying their fair share.

Well, here is an idea…instead of lamenting about a problem that seems outdated in today’s reality, utilities should accept the fact that solar panels have gone mainstream now that they are being sold at IKEA, and embrace a new business model. Rate decoupling would “decouple” utility rates from sales, eliminating the incentive that utilities have to sell more energy. This 101 does a good job of explaining the issue, and the map shows that many states have already gone down this path.

The National League of Cities does not have a position on whether states should allow for decoupling, but there certainly can be benefits in the long run to cities and consumers, not to mention the environment. Doing so is a positive way to bring more renewable energy to market and to promote energy efficiency — both of which NLC actively supports.

Carolyn Berndt
About the Author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.

Elevating the Principles of Net-Zero Buildings to Teach Us About Building Sustainable Communities

A few weeks ago, at the Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, I attended a session that featured NREL’s Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, CO. The session’s speakers described the design and construction process of the RSF, a net-zero energy building (NZEB) that today serves as a model for performance-based design.

The possibilities presented about achieving net-zero energy at scale were exciting: How do net-zero design strategies alter the discourse about how we design and build? Does NZEB necessitate a paradigm shift in the way we imagine and deliver buildings?

With my inner architecture geek fired up, I attended our own Congress of Cities Conference the following week. There, I had an opportunity to sit in on the Energy Efficiency workshop as Mayor Henrietta Davis of Cambridge, MA, along with Kurt Roth of Fraunhofer USA, presented the M.L.K School. This net-zero energy project, taken on by Cambridge Public Schools and the City of Cambridge in 2012, is to serve as a pilot project for achieving net-zero, specifically in schools.

“For Cambridge the process of planning and designing a net-zero school has changed the way we think about energy in all our buildings.  It has made us think about what energy we really need to use in our existing city buildings and will surely change some of what we do even in buildings not slated for full scale renovation or rebuilding.”

As Mayor Davis clearly states above, the process of planning for and designing net-zero buildings offers a new perspective on how we interact with and use energy in our communities.

Additionally, through the workshop sessions I realized that the focus on a life-cycle perspective (which the NZEB process elevates) offers principles applicable not only to energy efficiency in buildings, but also to the larger dialogue on taking sustainable communities to scale:

The Power of Integrated Design.  At the San Francisco Greenbuild session, speakers described the need to effectively integrate and coordinate the various building components and processes in order to achieve maximum energy efficiencies.  With NREL’s RSF, they spoke about the high level of coordination that took place between the various ‘designers’—the architect, engineer, contractor and operations/maintenance company—in order to ensure that energy efficiency was a prioritized goal (on par with scheduling and cost savings) throughout the process. Through open lines of communication, each ‘designer’ in the process ensured that their building component was as energy efficient as possible with relation to the various other components working in parallel.

Sustainable communities emerge from the thoughtful design and integration of the various components of a place.  While many of us are aware of this, do our planning practices actually encourage dialogue between the various ‘designers’ of the city—the architects, the transportation planners, the youth and the civic and faith-based organizers? Often, city planning is happenstance, pieces of communities clashing and colliding into places; and while there is beauty in the intersections that emerge, sustainable cities necessitate greater coordination and communication between these traditionally unlikely partners.  Create spaces that encourage open communication- the first step is to have everyone working together.

The Plug Load Problem.  In both sessions, the speakers used the example of plug loads—essentially the energy consumed by what you and I plug into a socket rather than the energy it takes to heat or light a room– to describe how much end users impact the overall building energy use.   To be able to achieve a NZEB, they emphasized 1) incorporating this variable into early energy modeling for the building and 2) creating an education process whereby end users (if known) understand the NZEB principles and the effects of their actions on overall building energy use.

Now this sounds quite simple, but how often do we forget that different communities are created for and occupied by different types of users?  While we may not ‘model’ a community like we do a building, we certainly envision outcomes early on.  So, in the design/visioning/ goal-setting process, the first step is identifying who the end users are (think: age, demographics, socioeconomic status) and how they already occupy spaces.  The second step is creating an educational component to the process so that “the users” understand the effects of their individual actions and are better equipped to make day-to-day decisions. Focus on the end user from the beginning—the key lies in the operation not just the planning.

The Passive Design Potential.  A critical component of designing a NZEB is incorporating passive design strategies—strategies that maximize the energy provided by natural systems as much as possible. Rather than defaulting to purchased energy, passive design creates a process whereby ambient sources of energy such as daylighting and natural ventilation are maximized. Both sets of speakers demonstrated that understanding the site and its “passive assets” was critical to minimizing the number of energy- consuming products that would make NZEB goals more difficult to achieve.

In the case of moving towards sustainable cities, how quickly do we assume that the ‘right’ answer in one place is the ‘right’ answer in another?  The fact is that each city has its own geographies, typologies, assets, and so forth. The strength of encouraging passive design strategies in net-zero building is that the excess addition of systems and components takes a second seat to the inherent assets of the site.

In the creation and implementation of a sustainability vision for a city, identifying those assets and qualities that already progress a city’s sustainability goals are not only low-hanging fruit, but often more successful in the long-term than imposing programs or policies that may not fit.  Build more with less-every community has untapped assets waiting to be utilized.

As NZEBs are still relatively recent in the sustainability conversation, I’m excited to see how building and energy rating systems develop and what lessons we continue to extract from the whole process!

Stay tuned and share your thoughts with us –comment below or email us at

Strengthening Sustainability at Home and Abroad: NLC-led Delegation Heads to Europe

The pursuit of sustainability is in many ways a pursuit of innovation. Far from altering the ultimate processes, systems, services, and objectives of local government – sustainability initiatives seek to find new approaches, use creative solutions, and plan comprehensively to enhance overall efficiency of cities and create healthy, prosperous, and strong communities. Sustainability approaches bring together and often streamline disparate functions, thrive on partnerships, focus on lasting solutions and are rooted in practicality even while embracing out-of-the-box thinking. In other words – while vastly necessarily, sustainability can be endlessly complicated.

Because of these complexities and the need for context-specific approaches, identifying and implementing appropriate sustainability initiatives is rarely a straightforward undertaking. The need to balance cause-and-effect across social, economic, and environmental considerations, and among a range of stakeholders can be especially challenging. Cities recognize that when it comes to pursuing innovative approaches to complex issues there is strength in numbers – in sharing, learning, and working together.

NLC’s Sustainability Program within the Center for Research and Innovation seeks to support, strengthen and connect cities’ sustainability efforts by sharing best practices, resources, and topic-specific information. Last month we welcomed the Sustainable Cities Institute, an online platform of case studies, model policies, and more to help achieve this goal. Recognizing the global implications and opportunities inherent within the field of sustainability, we have also regularly engaged international audiences through dialogue and information sharing.

Global innovations aimed at creating “smart”, sustainable, efficient, and healthy communities are rapidly expanding – as are efforts within U.S. cities. There is much to learn from and to share with the international community and many opportunities to expand international collaboration – among cities, businesses, universities, and other partners – to achieve sustainability goals.

To facilitate the exchange of best practices and learning across international communities this week NLC’s Sustainability Program is leading a delegation of U.S. local leaders to cities in Sweden and Germany (see press release). In each country, delegates will meet with international counterparts, non-governmental organizations, and high-ranking government officials to highlight locally led sustainability initiatives in the U.S. and learn about successful approaches being used in European communities.

Delegates will tour projects known for significant sustainability achievements in the cities of Stockholm and Malmö, Sweden, and Hamburg, Germany. Topics covered will range from advances in energy efficiency and renewable energy development, comprehensive community design, waste management, waterfront redevelopment, “green ports,” and strategies to connect sustainability with economic goals through clean tech and “greening” of business practices.

Meetings in Sweden provide an opportunity to build upon relationships developed through a similar delegation in 2010 when NLC signed on to support the Swedish American Green Alliance (s.a.g.a.), an initiative designed to encourage dialogue and knowledge transfer between the two nations on energy, environmental, and clean tech issues.  In Hamburg, delegates have been invited to help recognize and celebrate the city’s history of environmental achievement, which in 2011 resulted in the city being named the European Green Capital, a prestigious and competitive designation awarded by the European Commission.

The NLC delegation consists of local officials from the cities of Baltimore, Md., Cleveland, Ohio, Dubuque, Iowa, Los Angeles, Calif., Saint Paul, Minn., and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Follow the delegation all week on CitiesSpeak and via twitter @NLCgreencities for daily reports on activities throughout Sweden and Germany.

-NLC’s Sustainability Team