Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC: Post 8: Distributed Energy: A Series by John R. Nolon

This post is the eighth in a series. See below for links to previous issues.

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC.

Distributed Energy - Lost in Transmission

by John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor of Law

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

When President Trump announced his epic decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Accord, he quipped that he was elected to represent the residents of Pittsburgh, not Paris. His clever alliteration was hugely ironic.  Pittsburgh has long been a leader in mitigating climate change, using its local land use power and democratic processes to reduce energy consumption and fossil fuel emissions.  The City’s zoning code, in fact, aggressively facilitates one of the most promising mitigation measures, that of promoting distributed, or on-site, power generation.

In a previous blog, we reported that the most recent EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory estimates that residential and commercial buildings emit nearly 40% of domestic CO2, consume over 70% of the electricity produced in the U.S., and are responsible for over 40% of total energy used.  Shockingly, two-thirds of the fuel used to generate electrical power in the U.S. is lost as escaped heat at the point of generation and in transmission. Many of our electrical generation plants are located at sites far removed from where the power is needed: where people live and work and industry operates.  Much of the energy lost to generate electricity for the conventional power grid can be saved by on-site or distributed energy generation.

Pittsburgh, apparently unbeknownst to President Trump, is a model smart city. In response to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City challenge in 2015, the City developed a plan to create innovative, interconnected infrastructure that responds efficiently and affordably to the transportation and energy needs of local residents. It implemented SmartPGH: a plan to integrate multiple interconnected systems including a “grid of micro-girds” that generate electricity on-site, greatly reducing the energy lost in remote generation and transmission.  

The Department of Energy’s R&D Program defines a microgrid as “a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. A microgrid can connect and disconnect from the grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island-mode.” Microgrids can capture the heat used to generate power by converting it to energy needed to cool and heat connected buildings. This is called Combined Heat and Power (CHP). 

Microgrids usually operate at the scale of multiple buildings, a city block, or a larger neighborhood and are, therefore, ideally subject to local planning and regulation. They can be prevented or furthered by land use standards. At the local level, on-site generation and CHP facilities cannot be developed if not permitted by local zoning. Pittsburgh used its delegated power to adopt zoning and land use regulations to enable microgrids to develop. The City Council amended its municipal code to add a Performance Point System that incentivizes sustainable development. It awards developers density bonuses for points that they accumulate by developing sustainably, including the development of distributed energy systems such as microgrids.

For zoning to permit or promote a land use, it must define that use and specify where it may be located and how it is to be regulated or facilitated.  In one of the first such definitions of its kind, the Pittsburgh Zoning Code says: “Distributed Energy Systems shall mean a range of smaller-scale technologies designed to provide electricity and thermal energy closer to consumers. These approaches include fossil and renewable energy technologies, micro-grids, on-site energy storage, and combined heat and power systems.” See Pittsburgh Zoning Code, Article VI Chapter 915, section  915.07C (7)

Pittsburgh enacted into law what the USGBC encourages developers to do to qualify for certification under the LEED-ND program.  That program points out that zoning can allow for district heating and cooling facilities, as well as solar and wind systems, to be installed in certain buildings or their sites; land use review protocols can be used to encourage owners to provide them, and density bonuses can be granted to provide a financial incentive for them.

As demonstrated here, many energy technologies and facilities cannot be built if they are not permitted at the local level by zoning.  Localities, like Pittsburgh, have the ability to incentivize energy conserving development through density bonuses and partnerships involving funds from local capital budgets.  Innovations in energy technology can be furthered and assimilated by an informed public that understands the seriousness of current problems and the feasibility of new solutions. Since zoning is required to be in conformance with a comprehensive land use plan developed with robust citizen participation, land use planning provides a valuable opportunity to engage and inform the public.

See Land Use for Energy Conservation and Sustainable Development: A New Path Toward Climate Change Mitigation

Material from this series will appear in Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC, an article to be published by the Arkansas Law Review.

Material from this series will appear in Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC, an article to be published by the Arkansas Law Review.

Previous posts in this series are available here:

Post 1:  Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC

Post 2:  Post-Paris Contagion

Post 3: Carbon Emissions: The Land Use Connection

Post 4:  Shaping Human Settlements

Post 5:  The Land Use Stabilization Wedge: Buildings

Post 6:  The Land Use Stabilization Wedge:  Transportation

Post 7:  The Land Use Stabilization Wedge:  Sequestration

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