Renewable Energy Powers Community Resiliency

Cities Get Critical Infrastructure Off the Grid

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David Morley is a senior research associate at the American Planning Association.

Graeme Peterson is energy policy analyst at the Energy Resources Center, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Shelly Peterson, P.E., is a project manager at the Iowa Energy Office, Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2015 11:05 am

Communities investing in renewable energy infrastructure and systems know that they’ll save money on energy costs, but in the event of a natural disaster or emergency, these systems can prove their value far beyond a reduced monthly utility bill.

This was the focus of the Building Resilience through Local Renewable Energy session at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.

While “going green” often is looked at from a cost saving or positive PR standpoint, David Morley, a senior research associate with the American Planning Association, said these systems can help communities get back on their feet quickly after an emergency, whether it’s due to climate change, a natural disaster or a man-made event.

Renewable systems are diverse, redundant and often decentralized from the main power source, Morley said, attributes that can help communities incorporate them into their disaster planning scenarios.

Solar energy in particular can be very useful when it’s incorporated onto infrastructure or in critical facilities where people would go for shelter, Morley said, adding that leaders should think about “how are we going to use solar energy to enhance the community going forward?”

By identifying hazards and doing realistic risk assessments ahead of time, Morley said many communities have been able to plan to prevent natural disasters from damaging their communities, whether by encouraging development in less flood-prone areas or setting a policy to move toward renewable energy throughout the community, creating resilient power hubs.

Taking advantage of opportunities is an important part of this process, he added, citing the decision in Greenburg, Kan., to move to a 100 percent renewable energy system after 95 percent of the community was destroyed by a tornado in May 2007. While the tornado was devastating, the community did not go back to the status quo during its rebuilding process.

“One of the things I’m most bullish about is community solar,” he said. “You can use solar energy to enhance the community’s resilience.”

Looking for opportunities to improve existing energy systems is another important part of energy conservation and community resilience.

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems offer communities an efficient way to channel heat created during energy generation into community buildings, saving energy costs overall.

“The U.S. wastes more power as heat than it uses in an entire year,” said Graeme Miller, an energy policy analyst with the Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

CHP systems work with whatever fuel system is already in place and enhance efficiency and energy reliability, while also reducing emissions and grid congestion, Miller said.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority is trying to increase the use of CHP systems in communities, businesses and farms across the state, said Shelly Peterson, P.E., project manager with the Iowa Energy Office, a division of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“It’s become pretty obvious that a lot of people don’t even know what combined heat and power is, which is kind of a surprise because it’s not a new technology,” she said. “We think there are a lot more places in Iowa that could benefit from CHP installations.”

The Iowa Economic Development office has put together a CHP Resource Guide that can help communities, businesses and farms through the permitting process, incentives, resources and contacts to put a CHP system in place.

“We want the permitting process to be as transparent as possible,” Peterson said, adding that CHP systems are being factored into the still developing state energy plan, especially for farms.

“There are only three or four on-farm systems in Iowa, so there is a lot of potential for growth,” she added.

Smaller municipal utilities also can benefit, Miller said, especially since it can help facilities become more independent of grid energy systems.

As an example, Miller cited the city of Russell, Kan., which benefited from a CHP system that helped attract an ethanol plant to the community. The ethanol plant will use the affordable, high-pressure steam from the city’s CHP system, and the community got an economic boost with the creation of a new plant and workforce positions.

“We’re seeing it more and more commonly that municipalities and co-ops are moving to CHP,” he added.

Further proof that renewable technology results in resilient communities.

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