A group of people of color standing outside posing for the camera with excitement and their arms in the air.

Districts—An Ambitious, but Achievable Scale for Energy Transformation

What will it take to catalyze and accelerate the kind of energy transformation required to increase reliability, enhance resilience, meet ambitious climate goals, and create economic development opportunities? And what role can foundations play? Key takeaways from a recent gathering of funders interested in urban sustainability sponsored by the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.

As I wrote in my last post, cities have a huge role to play in addressing climate change. Yet, the challenge cannot be met one green building, one bus line, or one solar array at a time. Rapid, city-wide change is also difficult. We need tangible examples of how ambitious, but achievable change can happen. One promising model is district-scale projects.

Ever since the early 1900s, our country has relied on the same old centralized, hub-and-spoke model of energy generation and distribution (i.e., huge power plants, and massive networks of transmission wires)—as illustrated in the diagram below from Gridling Global. With increased frequency and intensity of severe weather events, this approach leaves whole regions vulnerable to power outages. It also creates unnecessary barriers to "smart" solutions, which disrupt the old model with more flexible, resilient, and less carbon-intensive approaches at the building, block, "district," or "micro-grid" scale.

Current energy generation and distribution model. Microgrid model with local heating, cooling, and power.

Gridling Global

Last month I had the pleasure of serving as local host for The Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (TFN) GREEN working group, which is a collection of sustainability funders, like Barr, committed to sharing ideas and strategies in areas of common interest. TFN's GREEN working group is focused on the intersection of sustainable design strategies and the health and vitality of neighborhoods. I have learned so much from my colleagues in the network over the years and this gathering in Boston was no exception. I moderated the opening session, which focused on some of Boston's early efforts to implement district-level energy solutions. Here are some of the highlights:

Our first speaker was Brian Swett, chief of the City of Boston's Environment, Energy, and Open Space office. He urged the group to focus its energies on 2050, and on the eighty-percent emissions-reduction goal. The City sees district energy as a key part of how it reaches its aggressive goals. Toward that end, Swett noted that the City of Boston has been engaging with area utilities to explore opportunities to launch district energy and microgrid projects. A recent Harvard Law School study debunked a commonly held misconception that a utility's consent is required for microgrids that run electric lines that cross public ways.

Next up was Travis Sheehan, Eco-districts Energy Fellow at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the Boston agency responsible for planning and economic development. Travis pointed out that Boston's medical and higher education community already boasts several district-scale energy systems. His role has been to take the idea into other sectors and to expand on it, from their single-owner model to more complex systems with multiple energy consumers and generation sources. The value proposition of these alternate approaches is clear—including lower total cost of energy, lower emissions, and greater reliability when major weather events knock out central grids.

This calculus means that, for City officials, district-scale energy also holds promise for economic competitiveness, generating investment opportunities, and job creation. To explore where this idea could be most beneficial, the BRA recently commissioned a citywide energy study to map the energy load of every building in Boston, and to predict new pockets of energy demand in the next fifty years. This study will be completed next spring. Travis has informative blog posts on the role of city government in promoting district energy.

Our third speaker was David Queeley, Eco-Innovation Fellow at the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation. David has been working on facilitating the creation of a new model for sustainable and equitable development in a Dorchester neighborhood—Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT)—covering thirteen blocks, forty-six acres with 1,500 residents. The community leaders and residents in TNT have an impressive community-revitalization vision that includes transforming vacant properties into parks; deep energy retrofits of existing buildings; new mixed-income, net-zero homes; and local energy generation—with a focus on solar that also includes investigating shared (i.e., not just on individual homes and buildings) solar, and on connecting residents to apprenticeships in solar installation, weatherization, and a local recycling cooperative called CERO. Dave indicated that if TNT is able to get these initiatives going, the innovations can easily be replicated in other neighborhoods along the Fairmount rail corridor, where similar revitalization efforts are also underway.

The session underscored how working at the district scale allows for pilot testing of new strategies that can become tangible, scalable examples for others to replicate. I will provide updates on Boston's district-level energy efforts in future blog posts. Stay tuned for more.

I am also thankful for this and other productive exchanges with colleagues via Barr's engagement with TFN, which helps us live out one of our core values, namely, curiosity, actively soliciting new perspectives to inform our work. Making progress against climate change will certainly depend upon this type of ongoing collaboration and shared learning.

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