A few months back, Worldchanging ally JP Kemmick traveled to Portland, Ore., to visit a group of college students working on a neighborhood-based renewable energy project. The non-profit organization Northwest Neighborhood Energy was starting a project called Sunnyside Neighborhood Energy, proposing to create a community-owned district energy (DE) utility in Southeast Portland.
Kemmick wrote that "the founders of SunNe envisioned a community-owned solar thermal project that would bring low-carbon space heating and cooling and domestic hot water to a mixed residential/commercial neighborhood."
After months of planning, SunNE has found a home for their utility: Portland's Sunnyside Elementary. The plan is to transform the school's 1917 oil-burning boilers into solar-powered geothermal heating pumps. The community-owned plant will connect to a network of underground pipes to almost 40 neighborhood blocks. Adam Stein of The TerraPass Footprint explained it well when he recently wrote that it would work like this:
The planned system will consist of solar hot water heaters and other systems designed to capture clean energy. These energy capture devices will be scattered throughout the neighborhood, in particular taking advantage of roof space on the elementary school and local commercial buildings. Hot (“hydronic”) water will be pooled and stored in tanks beneath a local park, and a series of insulated underground pipes will carry the water to participating homes and businesses
Once the hot water reaches local homes, it can either be used directly, allowing residents to get rid of their boilers, or it can be run through heat exchangers to provide hot air, allowing residents to get rid of their furnaces. Under alternative configurations, the system might also carry cool water to provide carbon-free air conditioning. Energy use will be metered, just as natural gas or electricity would.
In essence, the system is a giant version of a geothermal or solar hot water system that you might install in your own home. The difference is that the capital costs will be spread over a bigger group of people, efficiencies can be achieved through demand-pooling, and individual homeowners won’t have to deal with maintenance and repair.
SunNE still needs help getting off the ground, facing challenges like upfront costs and system installation. But in the long run, it's worth it, wrote Eric de Place for the Sightline Institute. If they succeed, they will be able to make energy more affordable for the neighborhood, create jobs and decrease carbon emissions. In de Place's words:
It's a great example of a locally-scaled idea that can yield benefits both now and in the future. This is exactly the kind of thing that a smart economic stimulus package would target. It would create green jobs now -- designing the system and performing the installation -- and it would make energy more affordable for the neighborhood while doing a reasonable bit to reduce climate emissions. For an estimated price tag of between $7 and $9 million, I'd say it's a bargain.
To learn more about the project, visit the City of Portland's website or SunNE's wikispaces page. You can also vote for their project on the venture funding site IdeaBlob.
Read more about district heating and heat pumps in our archives:
Image from the SunNE Wikispaces
This is exactly the kind of thing I like to see happening in our cities. District energy is an overlooked solution waiting to happen. I look forward to following their progress and learning from their experiences.