CLEANTECH: Net Zero Energy Communities

By Published On: August 8, 2008

California is inching toward greater use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, but to advance the process a state agency is looking to create prototype “net zero” energy communities. “It’s a vision of mixed renewable energies integrated in a sustainable way,” said Gerald Braun, California Energy Commission renewable energy technologies manager. To get the ball rolling, the commission has budgeted $5 million in the coming year to begin a research and development project aimed at creating net zero energy communities. It expects to solicit partners in a solicitation that could be issued as early as October, but ultimately no later than the end of the year, according to Braun. The commission has dubbed the effort the Renewable-based Energy Secure Communities project, or RESCO. Under it, the commission is looking for a venue to deploy such technologies as biomass, solar, small wind, low impact hydro, ground source heat pumps, and energy storage technologies to make all of the electricity needed by a community. “We need to focus on enabling deployment,” said Braun during an August 6 meeting to gain interest in the effort. He said that commercial products to tap virtually every renewable energy resource are readily available, except for ocean wave energy and cellulosic biofuels. Technologies to make use of even these resources are advancing quickly, he added. Yet the technologies needed to create a RESCO are likely to vary from community to community depending upon differences in accessibility to renewable energy resources, Braun suggested. Some areas may be rich in biomass, for instance, while others are rich in wind or solar resources. Sites for the project could be a university campus or a city, he said, suggesting that the project likely would involve an area that needs between 10 and 100 MW of generating capacity to meet its needs. Developing so-called RESCOs in California can help stabilize energy costs, create new jobs, reduce the environmental impacts of energy use, advance technologies, and relieve congestion on the grid, among other benefits. The University of California at San Diego already is on the way to becoming a RESCO, according to Braun. The campus produces 80 percent of its electricity with an on-campus cogeneration unit and gets another 18 percent of its power from renewable resources. The university is expanding its renewable energy supply by developing a 1.2 MW fuel cell project that uses biogas methane as a feedstock. It also is adding 2 MW of solar panels on rooftops. The campus is making sure that new buildings are energy efficient and it is retrofitting older buildings for efficiency. In a novel effort, the university, perched on a bluff over the Pacific Ocean, is examining how it might be able to cut its power load by 4 MW by using nearby seawater to cool buildings. The move also has the potential to save 100 million gallons a year of freshwater now used in its building air conditioning system.

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