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New Energy Hubs: Transit-Oriented Development Meets District Energy
Patrick Mazza, 12 Jan 10

Advanced community design models are emerging to provide some of the greatest opportunities for reducing fossil fuel use, climate-disrupting emissions and traffic congestion, while also offering affordable, high-quality lifestyles.

Envision living in a community that offers an abundance of local shopping, services and entertainment. The community is focused on a mobility center well connected to the region with transit and vanpools. The need to drive to work and other destinations is minimized. When you do drive, it is in an electric vehicle charged at your house or a fast charge station located in the mobility center park-and-ride.

Coming from work you stop by a mobility center kiosk to pick up groceries and other items ordered on line. You come home to a super-efficient residence with a smart management system that has adjusted temperatures in anticipation of your arrival. Hot water that heats your home and comes out of your shower head is delivered from a local plant that uses both ground heat and biogas.

Electricity that powers your home and charges your vehicle is generated at the plant and a neighborhood solar array mounted at the park-and-ride. Power is delivered by a smart grid that manages local power generation and sends any surplus around the city. The smart grid also communicates with buildings and electric vehicles to optimize grid operations, saving ratepayers on power costs.


This is a vision for a New Energy Hubs, a comprehensive community development model that meshes transit-oriented developments (TODs) with emerging energy technologies. Deploying advanced transportation and energy concepts in one geographically defined location provides synergistic benefits, making for the most effective use of energy and resources.

TODs aim at reducing traffic and the need to drive single-occupant vehicles by concentrating housing, retail, services and employment in walkable communities with abundant public transportation. A related concept of clean mobility centers meshes transit park-and-rides with a range of other mobility and personal services including vanpools and car sharing.

In energy a number of technology advances are coming to the fore at building and neighborhood scales. District energy systems that provide heating, cooling and electrical energy, operating in cities for generations, are being upgraded and expanded to realize efficiency opportunities. Distributed energy generation employing renewable resources such as solar, ground heat or wind power is spreading. Smart grids employing digital technology to optimize power generation, delivery and usage are being deployed. Smart grids are connecting with smart, green buildings designed to operate at high efficiency.

Meanwhile electrified vehicles are emerging as a significant mass market option being vigorously pursued by every major auto manufacturer and a number of new companies. Park-and-rides are high on the list for early charging station installations.

New energy technologies are synergistic with the transportation electrification. Local energy generation can charge vehicles. Making buildings more efficient frees electricity to charge vehicles, in terms of overall power grid capacity and in ability to deliver power in locally constrained networks. Smart grid communications capabilities regulate vehicle charging times to reduce peak load stress and optimize use of renewable resources. Ultimately, vehicle batteries could store renewable energy and feed it back to the grid. Energy storage makes renewable energy available when the wind is not blowing or the sun not shining. This improves renewable energy economics.

The energy stored in park-and-rides full of electric vehicles might even feed back to the transit network. Both Bay Area Rapid Transit and DC Metro have studied the potential for parked fleets to provide acceleration energy to electrified rail lines. Meanwhile, power infrastructure to propel new lines might also supply fast charging for electric vehicles, an application that requires power lines with high capacity.


Installing advanced new energy technologies while building transit-oriented developments will yield multiple efficiencies. TODs entail construction of dense neighborhoods. Compact communities are ideally served by district plant and piping systems supplying hot water and building heat. Economies of scale make district systems significantly more energy efficient that single building systems. District energy plants can also cogenerate electricity, and be powered with renewable fuels such as biomass or ground heat.

Other renewable electrical generators are also more economically installed at a district scale – It costs less to install one large solar array to serve a neighborhood than solar panels on individual buildings. District-scale cogeneration and solar arrays might serve electric vehicle charging stations as well.

When new construction is underway is the economically optimal time to install new energy networks including district energy, smart grid and vehicle charging. Infrastructure costs less when it is built in a coordinated way, doing as much as possible at once.

For example, when streets are excavated to install water and sewer lines, also put in place should be pipes to channel district heat and cooling. When new power grids are installed, they should be infused with smart, digital technologies capable of communicating with buildings and vehicles. New grids should also be set up to transmit locally generated electricity between buildings, and ship surplus local generation to the larger grid.

A primary goal of TODs is to reduce sprawl and transportation energy use. It naturally follows that new residences and other buildings in the development should be built to high efficiency standards that reduce overall energy consumption. New buildings should also be smart-grid capable, with metering and energy management systems capable of communicating with the grid, and include vehicle charging plugs as well.


New Energy Hubs are not only about new construction, but also about energy and transportation improvements that extend to surrounding neighborhoods. Since the goal is to concentrate population growth in discrete centers, it is beneficial to target the older building fleet surrounding new development for comprehensive energy retrofits. The aim should be to capture deep efficiency potentials while adding smart grid and vehicle charging capabilities.

Doing as many building improvements as possible at once cuts costs, as does giving retrofit efforts a geographic focus. For example, the same crews might be working in adjacent buildings at once, installing smart meters and charging plugs along with insulation and better windows.

Cost efficiencies of coordination also go for larger infrastructure projects. For example, when new smart grid networks are going in to new construction, the same crews and contractors can also upgrade grids in the nearby area. Connecting a larger number of power users to the smart grid has other benefits. The greater the numbers of customers in a neighborhood who can adjust their power demands, the less utilities have to spend on peak load infrastructure serving the neighborhood. That helps control power costs and bills.

The same logic applies to district energy. When crews are installing district energy networks to new construction, they can be deployed to extend them to nearby neighborhoods. The greater the number of buildings that can be served on a system, the more economically they can be served.


Building build New Energy Hubs creates novel marketing potentials. Large segments of the public are increasingly concerned about issues surrounding energy, from climate change to reliance on oil imports from unfriendly nations. New Energy Hubs offer the most immediate prospects for people to dramatically reduce or even eliminate their personal fossil fuel consumption. They possess immense potential to attract the large and growing market for climate-friendly and energy-smart lifestyles.

Regions that lead in developing New Energy Hubs also will generate new jobs and jobs-rich sectors. Experience gained in designing and developing New Energy Hubs, in assembling the needed supplier and contractor networks, will translate into projects around the world. New markets will be created for local and regional clean tech companies in a wide range of sectors including renewable energy, smart grids, advanced buildings and electrified transport. A region that develops a series of such hubs will also enhance its overall green profile, an advantage for attracting clean tech companies and creative individuals.

New Energy Hubs answer crucial needs to reduce congestion and manage urban growth, cut down on fossil fuel use and air pollution, and grow new technologies, companies and jobs. Now is the moment to merge advanced transportation and energy concepts into a unified strategy for community development that will shape much of the future growth pattern of metropolitan areas. The New Energy Hub is an idea whose time has come.

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When I worked in product design, my boss joked about Trinkulite--the miracle material that was light and strong and sparkly and cheap and injection moldable!! What will we make this out of? Trinkulite!!

Visionary pieces, while I applaud them, increasingly need to be grounded in reality. Google Jeff Vail and Renewables Gap for an introduction for a seldom-considered problem bringing renewables online. The New Scientist did an excellent article on Peak Metals a couple of years ago, which has serious implications for renewable energy, electric vehicles and smart grids. Without some of these real-world considerations, computer models quickly smell too much of Trinkulite.

Posted by: Ruben on 12 Jan 10

The South-East False Creek development in Vancouver, BC, includes a neighborhood energy utility, which distributes heat from rooftop solar panels, recovers heat otherwise wasted from commercial space, and uses sewer lines as the source for heat pumps, increasing their efficiency. The False Creek Energy Centre, as the core facility is called, combines a regular sewage pumping station, the heat pumps, and gas-fired backup water heaters, in a rather clever building tucked under a bridge near the streetcar line. All in all a beautiful piece of engineering.

Posted by: Dominic Brown on 12 Jan 10

"Visionary pieces, while I applaud them, increasingly need to be grounded in reality"

i get that. but i think this thought pattern needs to evolve slightly. using reality to hold back vision is one lense to look through but i think the real discussion needs to be had around what parts of the high tech vision we really really want. i love the visionary stuff and get really excited about it and we need a future that we can get excited about but it's very easy for the high tech vision to overshadow the growing realization that the things that bring us true quality of life and wellbeing are often quite simple and so i'd much rather start from that simply vision of the future and augment it and build on it with high tech exciting stuff. when we get a vision of the future with the right mix i think it will be truly visionary. i think we can all start to fall in love with that future and that is the basis of creating it. the material issues become almost detail....

Posted by: shane on 13 Jan 10

just a quick thought. a lot of this is founded on the reaction to the inefficiencies of urban sprawl. however, that's a transport issue but given that densely populated areas could not supply their electricity on site within the urban areas. They would have to import the vast majority of their energy from a given distance almost like the watershed or the foodshed, there'd be an energy shed that extends great distances. District heating/energy systems lose their efficiency gains really quickly over transmission losses.
for new developments i wonder how the energy efficiency gains stack up at making the transport system uba efficient and having developments built in and around the energy systems.

the best plan would be to not have new developments coz you'll lose the landmass for either the urban sprawl and buildings or the energy systems to supply the densely populated buildings.

Posted by: shane on 13 Jan 10


Sadly, I think you have just just typified all that is wrong with this approach. The material issues will never become details. We are material. Our food is material. Our homes are material, heated with material and lit with material. We wear material and work with materials in material buldings. The virtual world is built out of material and accessed in material spaces. So yes, simple may be often best. But it may also always be reality.

Posted by: Ruben on 15 Jan 10



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