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Sustainability 107: community energy planning

Branch a growing, thriving community
Branch a growing, thriving community
Photo Illustration by Rick Zimmerman

As we continue to increase our annual energy consumption, as our national grid becomes ever more interconnected, and as brownouts and blackouts continue to occur, wise energy planning at the community-wide or region-wide scale becomes ever more important. Wise energy planning is essential to the quality, convenience and sustainability of community life. It fosters sound use of limited resources, while shifting us all to ever more renewable and affordable resources. It helps us protect our environment, and provides an underlying structure to our plans of growth and development. It helps us to envision, and then realize, our future.

A community energy plan, by necessity, must be considered in relation to such other community goal-setting structures as a water plan, natural resource plan, waste plan, land use plan, transportation plan, development plan and climate change plan. Furthermore, none of these can be generated in a vacuum, but must synergistically interact with all the others.

An hour’s drive west of Copenhagen, one can encounter a working community energy plan in the eco-industrial park of Kalundborg, Denmark. There, over a span of nearly 50 years, industries have been learning to share each other’s water, waste heat, information and by-products as resources. Farmers, fish factories and recycling plants work with a power plant, plasterboard manufacturer and soil remediation company in a form of industrial symbiosis. Land planners, urban designers and architects worldwide are working to develop fully integrated communities, in which energy use considerations — and their implications on plan and form — rise to the fore.

For many communities, the single greatest consumer of energy is transportation, whether for worker commute, family leisure or the continual delivery of goods and services. In any community energy plan, it therefore becomes prudent to consider not only compactness of layout, density of uses, and modularity of fully rounded neighborhoods, but also multi-mode transportation networks (for train, car, bus, cycle, and foot).

Since water treatment claims its share of our energy budget, we are wise to minimize the demand for water treatment. Encouraging water conservation and recycling and the installation of rain-capture and gray-water systems wherever possible can aid in effective long term energy planning. Likewise, the implementation of effective waste management practices can reduce the annual energy total claimed by our waste handling systems. Waste-to-energy processes and the use of waste heat and biomass as fuel can all aid us.

A significant hurdle to the effective implementation of a sound community energy plan is often the ignorance, reluctance or lack of involvement of the citizenry. Community education therefore becomes a crucial first stage in any such implementation. Often, a group of ‘stakeholders’ must be recruited, to insure both that all valid viewpoints are aired, and that all parties have an incentive to work toward positive outcomes.

Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to aid in educating and recruiting the public. Building codes and energy codes have begun to pave the way toward ever more efficient energy planning and development. Energy labeling and the concerted efforts of NGOs and other special interest groups have raised energy and environmental awareness. Financial incentives offered by governments and private enterprise further encourage stakeholders to get on board.

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