Complete Town Planning – The Energy Element

From a community infrastructure perspective, everything changed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ensuring energy resiliency to power individual buildings as well as entire communities emerged as a pressing local issue.

Community leaders who analyze infrastructure in the wake of major climate events often identify energy availability and the need for resiliency in energy infrastructure as critical in planning for future weather events. Sustainable energy planning is becoming a topic of concern to communities, particularly those areas that have faced severe weather events and loss of power lasting a week or more. Since frequency and severity of storms are projected to increase, an increasing number of local governments are focusing on long-term energy planning to improve energy performance.

Local energy planning was the topic of a recent installment of the monthly lecture series held at the Maryland Department of Planning – known as Your Brain on Planning. Three guest speakers discussed Full-Spectrum Energy Planning, providing a context to community energy planning with an overview of emerging trends in local energy planning, options for local sustainable energy models and barriers encountered by those undertaking energy infrastructure resiliency planning.

Rebecca Rush and Rick Lank of DERP Technologies, LLC and David Ager of Townscape Design provided a historical background on local energy planning, citing a 1930s-era energy element that was part of the city plan for Asheville, N.C. Not unusual for the period, the Asheville city plan included maps and projections of local energy availability and usage alongside projected needs for water and sewer infrastructure, parkland and street extensions within the town grid. In subsequent decades, less priority was given to energy planning in local comprehensive plans, although that trend is now changing.

New concepts in energy generation and alternatives to current energy grid models abound. Advances in electrical distribution, the need for increased resiliency of energy infrastructure and changes to energy regulatory framework underway in Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland are resulting in changes to utility business models and new approaches to local energy distribution.

The presenters detailed the options available to communities to address energy demands faced by many communities in the aftermath of significant storm events. Standard energy grids do not supply electric power during grid failures. Institutions that cannot afford to be cut off from power , such as hospitals, are exploring the emerging technology options to prepare for electrical grids failing.

The Town of Windham, Connecticut and Windham Public Schools obtained a Connecticut Micro-grid Funding Award to implement solar and micro-grids to power a high school, Main Street and other critical infrastructure. This effort is intended to build energy resiliency into the local energy network. Windham leaders recognized that providing reliable power justified the investment in micro-grid technology.

Localized grids that operate autonomously from the traditional grid can help mitigate power outages. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, micro-grids can function as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery.

The energy experts stressed that current electrical grid distribution systems are no longer robust or stable enough for the U.S. military. Also, most research hospitals, including Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, have advanced on-site energy plants that provide energy reliability and redundancy. As an outgrowth of these initiatives, local off the grid energy systems are now being examined by some local governments to provide more reliable power to residents and businesses during significant storm events.

It is increasingly important that planning professionals consider energy options in comprehensive planning, brownfield revitalization projects and in climate action plans. Local governments seeking energy options should explore opportunities for collaboration and public/private partnerships in development of local energy systems. The notion of incorporating alternative energy sources into local planning has been addressed by the American Planning Association. The APA’s 2012 Policy Guide on Energy “supports measures and policies to address the rising energy costs for homes, businesses, and transportation while enhancing our energy security as a nation and reducing dependency on foreign sources. Planning for energy and the impacts of energy generation enables greater economic freedom for all Americans.” APA supports distributed energy generation systems that utilize community energy generation and smart grid public infrastructure that supports both conservation and energy efficiency.

Maryland is a leader in storm and climate-related energy resiliency. Recognizing the potential impact of regional weather patterns and the prolonged power outages brought by recent hurricanes, blizzards, and other storm events, the Maryland Grid Resiliency Task Force examined several options in 2012 to increase the resiliency and reliability of Maryland’s electric distribution systems. The report Grid Resiliency Task Force: Weathering the Storm provides an overview of the issues and specific technology, infrastructure, regulatory and process recommendations to improve the resiliency of Maryland’s distribution grids.

Learn more about Maryland’s energy policy.

This piece was originally published in Smart Growth Maryland..