3 Ways Cities are Leading in Energy Innovation

This is the second blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation.


This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

It’s no accident that “energy” is one of the main components of city sustainability plans. If we drilled down, much of these efforts likely focus on buildings. With buildings representing 39 percent of the nation’s energy use, 72 percent of electricity use and one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, city leaders know that a key to meeting their sustainability goals lies in reducing the energy use of their building stock, whether by encouraging energy efficiency or renewable energy use, or both.

As the Georgetown Energy Prize launches today, and in continued celebration of Earth Day (and really, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day), below are some game changers in city energy:

1. Net Zero Energy Use – Fort Collins, CO and Salt Lake City

From the country’s first net zero energy district to the first net zero public safety building, cities are innovating with technical solutions to reduce energy use.

The City of Fort Collins, along with Colorado State University and the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster in 2007 created the nation’s first net zero energy district, FortZED, to produce more energy than it uses from both electric and thermal sources.

Using smart grid technology and renewable energy sources, FortZED has the potential to create 200-300 new permanent jobs focusing on clean energy, energy conservation and the systems to support smart grids.

The Salt Lake City Public Safety Building is the first public safety building in the nation to achieve a net zero rating. Home to the city’s police and fire departments as well as emergency dispatchers, the 175,000-square-foot building utilizes a vast array of rooftop solar panels, as well as an off-site solar farm, to achieve the net zero rating.

Whereas a traditional building of this size would produce 2670 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, this building will produce just 524 metric tons per year.

2. PACE Programs Move Forward – South Florida and Los Angeles

In September 2013, the cities of Miami, Miami Shores, South Miami, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and Coral Gables, Florida jointly formed the Clean Energy Green Corridor with YGrene Energy Fund to launch Florida’s first Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program enabling property owners to finance renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades and hurricane protection measures over the long-term through their property tax bill.

The South Florida PACE program is one of seven active residential PACE programs, despite objections from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. NLC supports legislative efforts to allow state and local governments to develop and implement such programs.

Meanwhile, cities continue to develop commercial PACE programs to offer these same benefits of reducing the high upfront costs and reaping long-term cost savings to the business community.

To date there are 26 active commercial PACE programs, and more than $60 million in financing extended for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, the biggest of which is a $7 million project at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City.

3. Green Design for Affordable Housing – Seattle

Building on the theme of equity that my colleague Neil Bomberg has written about in connection with the World Urban Forum, city leaders realize that sustainable design practices are not just for the wealthy and that affordable housing doesn’t have to mean lower quality housing.

According to the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), of which NLC is a partner, low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households.

By incorporating energy efficient appliances, lighting and windows, tankless hot water heaters and whole house fans, among other amenities, into affordable and mixed-income housing, the High Point Redevelopment project in Seattle provides numerous health and environmental benefits to all income levels—not to mention reduced utility expenses for residents.

The retention of 100 mature trees, not only adds aesthetic value, but reduces home energy costs and carbon emissions.

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 sustainability@nlc.org.

What can demonstration projects teach us about sustainability?

Large- scale demonstration projects—ones that are focused on combining and testing various physical systems within a confined geography– are increasingly gaining popularity with cities interested in pushing the sustainability envelope.   As someone who readily transitioned from architecture to urban planning (eager to address some of the larger-scale systems questions that a section drawing didn’t quite get to), I am tremendously excited by the ways that cities and their partners are using demonstration projects as testing grounds for innovation and experimentation.  While there is undoubtedly value in singular sustainability efforts, such as weatherizing a building or greening a rooftop (these singular efforts add up to have tremendous impacts on city-wide outcomes), there seems to be an increased recognition that combining and integrating various systems may in fact be the key to scaling up, or at least getting a better handle on, sustainability.  By weaving various individual systems together—be it transportation, infrastructure, or energy—demonstration projects show us that cities can track, measure, and monitor the aggregate performance of systems that historically have worked in isolation.

At the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Regional Conference in Philadelphia last month, I had the opportunity to learn more about the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (known until very recently as the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster).  The EEB Hub is a “regional innovation cluster,” funded primarily by the Department of Energy with additional funding from the Economic Development Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Small Business Administration.  The mission of the EEB Hub is to improve the energy efficiency of buildings while promoting regional economic growth and job creation.  Twenty-two organizations, including DOE laboratories, academic institutions, community colleges, and private sector agencies are working together at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard to demonstrate the significant energy efficiency reductions that result from integrating the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of whole building systems.  By using the Navy Yard as a lab, the EEB Hub is modeling the types of energy (and cost) savings that can result from embracing partnerships, utilizing technology, and maintaining a holistic approach to building systems performance and analysis– all the while identifying policies to accelerate the market adoption of energy efficiency retrofits and actively creating and promoting “green” jobs throughout the Philadelphia region.

On a different scale, we see that cities are similarly experimenting with the impacts of concentrating (technology-driven) sustainable solutions to infrastructure, energy and transportation challenges.  During NLC’s International Sustainability Exchange to Germany and Sweden, Mayor Chris Coleman, of Saint Paul, spoke about the Energy Innovation Corridor.  An eleven mile stretch between the Twin Cities (adjacent to a light-rail line under construction) serves as a showcase of the cities’ clean energy and transportation efforts, including electric transportation startups; smart energy technologies; and advanced energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.  Local businesses, non-profit organizations, energy utilities, local governments, and residents are working together to develop the corridor into a model of integrated land use practices that the rest of the state, and nation, might one day emulate.  (This map shows the various demonstration projects taking place within the Corridor, including solar arrays, electric car charging stations, bike lanes, and residential retrofit projects.)  While I’m unsure of how cumulative impacts are currently measured within the corridor, it is exciting to see two cities and their constituents working towards and understanding the value of a land use model that intentionally pulls so many pieces together.

With rapidly emerging technologies that comprehensively measure and monitor data, cities and their partners have more flexibility to innovate and experiment.  Within this context, demonstration projects are perhaps the first tangible step towards proving that the long-term “success” of sustainability lies at the nexus of various singular initiatives.

President Obama Outlines Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future

This post is written by Carolyn Berndt, Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability, Center for Federal Relations, National League of Cities.

This morning, President Obama laid out his plan to reduce foreign oil imports by one-third over the next decade, calling this new goal “reasonable, achievable and necessary.” Speaking at Georgetown University, the President invoked the pain at the pump that families and businesses feel when gas prices rise, cutting into their budgets and bottom lines, and said that we “will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we get serious about a long-term policy for secure, affordable energy.”

“The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity and security on a resource that will eventually run out. Not anymore. Not when the cost to our economy, our country, and our planet is so high. Not when [the next] generation needs us to get this right,” said Obama.

The President’s blueprint for reducing reliance on oil imports calls for both increased domestic production of oil and decreased oil consumption through alternative fuels and energy efficiency. Obama announced incentives to expedite development and drilling of oil and gas from existing leases that are currently not being utilized and called for developing alternatives to oil such as natural gas and biofuels.

Additionally, Obama called for making our transportation system more energy efficient through new fuel economy standards and greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles and commercial trucks, vans and buses; supporting electric and natural gas vehicles; and investing in high speed rail and mass transit. Obama said that all Americans, whether urban, suburban or rural should have “the choice to be mobile without having to get in a car and pay for gas.”

Regarding efficiency, the president reiterated his calls to Congress for a clean energy standard requiring 80 percent of electricity to come from renewable fuels, clean coal, natural gas and nuclear power by 2035 and restated his commitment to improving the energy efficiency of homes and buildings

Finally, the president said the federal government should support clean energy innovations and research and development in new technologies, saying “our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own backyard. And we boast one critical, renewable resource the rest of the world cannot match: American ingenuity.”

Supporting the President’s call to establish a secure, long-term energy policy, NLC urges the federal government to develop and implement a sustainable energy policy that is reliable, equitable and environmentally responsible. NLC also supports measures to improve the energy efficiency of homes and buildings (particularly through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program), policies to promote the development of alternative and renewable fuels, including strengthening fuel economy standards, and use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Current NLC policy supports the domestic production of natural gas in an environmentally responsible manner, however the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources (EENR) Committee has chosen to further study the issue as part of its workplan for the year, including focusing on the potential impact that hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water resources. Additionally, the EENR committee this year will study electric vehicle infrastructure and implementation relating to electricity production, smart grid technology and renewable resources.