A Vision for Sustainable Urban Living
JULY 30 | 2010 | 12:00 PM
In order meet the challenge of a sustainable mixed-use community of approximately 30,000 people, a total community plan must address how to integrate and balance the social needs and energy demands of the occupants. Sustainability begins by planning for the most inherently energy efficient, adaptable, and socially viable arrangement of buildings that can distribute power and energy generation within its own footprint. At present, the dominant model for power generation and energy distribution is to concentrate services in one geographic area and link to far away users with supply conduits. This evolved as local energy companies expanded to growing customer bases (towns and cities grew) and also to fulfill the philosophy of economization of scale. The consequence over time was that legislation and decision making of how to expand the power and energy grid is far removed from the community level. Anecdotally, communities struggle with balancing their needs and the needs of the province when, for instance, a power station is to be constructed, or the laying of power and gas lines bisects a residential population. When economization of scale is a driving factor, these small interests are called "externalities" and are proportionally represented in the decision making process. This method has prevailed because the majority of people receive cheap, reliable energy without much attention or skill required for its generation and delivery.
Distributed power generation and energy delivery is weighted much more towards local decision making. The infrastructure piggy-backs on existing power and gas grids, but ties in with small loads spread out more evenly and located directly in population centers. Politically, this gives communities virtually complete control over the decision making process and arbitration is at the neighborhood or even individual home level. Development along this model is attractive because it responds to lifestyle choices as well as economic choices. A new development can effectively plan to evenly balance large and smaller loads so that daily variability in consumption can be shared, with cooling and heating loads balancing one another in a district energy sharing system. People wishing for their values to be reflected in how they harness and use energy have only one model to choose from at the "economy of scale" level, though various companies provide the service, the product is identical. At the distributed level, a different technology mix is used that draws upon the available resources in that community, such as:
- Geoexchange Systems using ground water, aquifers, and conductive soils
- Underground Thermal Energy Storage Systems
- Solar Photovoltaic Systems
- Solar Thermal Energy Collection Systems
- Wind power generation
- Co-generation of power generation and thermal energy delivery from fuel cells, micro turbines, biomass, and syngas recovered from municipal waste.
Ultimately the only way to achieve a sustainable economy over the long term is to use solar energy, capture it locally, store it efficiently (i.e. chemical form such as hydrogen or syngas recovered from municipal waste; electrical form such as a capacitor; or thermal form such as geothermal or molten salts) and respond to demand effectively. For Alberta to respond to changing social, economic and environmental needs, we must change the way that we plan our developments to produce and use power and energy.
Strides are being taken on the individual building level to improve efficiency and increase knowledge of how to change design and development practices to be more sustainable. Critical steps include: designing passive elements into the architecture of the building to reduce heating, cooling and ventilation loads; creating an effective thermal barrier and enhancing the energy retention of a building using high density materials and constant core temperature design; and using locally appropriate building materials that have lower embodied energy and carbon emissions.
The challenge of tomorrow is to integrate these efficient buildings into an urban plan that can balance energy loads between buildings and generate power and thermal energy on site. We must move away from the present model of producing power and energy in large clusters far removed from end users. The additional benefit of this approach is in the social dimension, by empowering communities to define themselves by how they produce and use the resources available to them in their own community. Utility companies benefit by operating, managing and maintaining the technologies. Communities benefit by having greater control over how their choices for using energy affects the quality of life and the local environment. By moving to a distributed energy society in Alberta, we eliminate the practice of sacrificing "externalities" for the "greater good" and realize an even greater good.
Our collaborative efforts include contributing to The Way We Green - Edmonton city sustainable planning stakeholder consultation; Greening The Avenue - Whyte Avenue alternative energy technology retrofit project development; Carbon Offset Verifcation Protocol for Commercial and Institutional Building Energy Efficiency - technical planning, evaluation and stakeholder consultation; and our homegrown Vitality Garden - a partnership with local schools that aims to promote the importance of locally grown food and enhance all aspects of the curriculum with a hands-on outdoor experience in educational gardens, designed by Vital Engineering and key stakeholders.
Vital Engineering provides renewable energy technology, mechanical, civil, and electrical consulting for building owners, developers, architects, design-build contractors and community groups to deliver cost-effective and sustainable building designs. We are LEED® accredited professionals and members of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA), the Canadian Geo-Exchange Coalition (CGC), and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).