Consumers may dream of their electricity bill shrinking to zero, climate campaigners of zero carbon emissions, and utilities of zero risk of an unforeseen catastrophe obliterating their power stations.
Zero net energy use -- whether for buildings, neighborhoods, or entire cities -- is a dream that's creeping slowly toward reality in dozens of places in the developed world.
In the United States, the city of Fort Collins, Colo. is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to replace the traditional centralized energy grid with a kind of interactive grid that would deliver lower prices for consumers, more energy efficiency, and produce a child-size carbon footprint. The city of 150,000 people is on the way to turning its downtown into "FortZED" – a zero energy district that produces as much energy as it uses.
Other ultra-low energy buildings and districts are in the planning stages in the United States, Japan and Europe. The principle underlying all these projects is to shift command and control operations over electric power distribution away from huge utilities and toward partnerships between industry, cities and individuals.
Rather than one central plant pumping power throughout the grid, energy from cleaner, more sustainable sources flows in from a distributed network of small and medium-sized power plants.
In Fort Collins, these sources could eventually include gas turbines, rooftop solar arrays, wind and hydro turbines, pumped water storage, and fuel cells.
These and other technologies are being tested in Fort Collins and in eight other locations in a Department of Energy pilot distributed-energy program in places as varied as Hawaii and New York City.
Fort Collins' project is the most ambitious of the lot, aiming to hook up about 6,000 downtown customers to the decentralized grid, plus many more users on the nearby Colorado State University campus, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank.
In 2011, the first phase of FortZED deployed the communications and control technology needed to bring new sources of locally generated power online. So far, so good. Now comes the hard part: attracting investment, encouraging consumers to do potentially expensive retrofits to their homes and businesses, and setting tariffs at a level that consumers and the local utility company can both live with.
The lessons learned at Fort Collins will be useful for planners in Italy, Spain and Turkey, where neighborhoods in three cities are participating in a scheme called R2Cities.
Managed by a public-private, EU-funded consortium, the pilot project aims to retrofit 850 dwellings used by 1,500 people, targeting a 60 percent cut in energy use.
In another EU-funded pilot project, EU-GUGLE, buildings in six cities will be renovated to reduce their net energy use to near zero in hopes of encouraging similar initiatives on a much larger scale by 2020.
The goal of ZenN, yet another European scheme with a cute name, is to implement zero-energy projects at neighborhood level.
All these projects share certain things in common: They all focus on hooking up existing buildings to new or newly linked-up energy sources, all are in the very early planning stages and will affect fairly small communities, and all rely heavily on government money.
Another, perhaps more efficient, route to zero-energy cities is for a company or local authority to put up a greenfield, state of the art energy-saving building. Sounds logical, but so far there are only 32 zero net energy buildings in the United States, with another 110 in various stages of construction, according to one report.
A skyscraper that could transform the zero-energy landscape and the Jakarta cityscape, Pertamina Energy Tower, will be the most energy efficient super-tall building ever erected, according to architects Skidmore Owings & Merrill. When it is completed in 2020, the 1,730-foot needle will generate much of its own power from wind funneled through a crevice at its top, as well as by tapping solar panels and geothermal sources.
The hodge-podge of government, academic, business and civil society groups behind FortZED command only a fraction of the financial resources of Pertamina, one of Indonesia's biggest companies.
Summing up the results of a 2012 meeting of FortZED stakeholders, the Rocky Mountain Institute highlighted the visionary nature of the project, but also pointed out some major questions to be solved, including "uncertainty about the types of resources to invest in, where the financing will come from, and the ultimate affect on the city and the utility, if efficiency and renewable plans are as successful as hoped."
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