The Next Great Thing: Whole Community Energy

Virginia Tech has just published the Summer 2006 edition of “Virginia Tech Research,” which it dedicates to the topic of energy-related R&D and public policy. Many of the research projects taking place at Tech are interesting in their own right — from pinpointing disruptions to the national power grid to designing solar houses, from developing more efficient fuel cells to creating bio-based fuels.

As a public policy wonk, however, I found most fascinating the commentary by John Randolph, director of Tech’s school of public and international affairs, who explores the concept of “whole community energy.” One element of whole community energy is “distributed energy,” in which small, independent sources of energy are connected to the power grid, supplementing the energy supplied by giant, central power plants. (More on that topic in the next post.) But there’s more.

The Whole Community energy concept goes further than building efficiency and distributed energy. Buildings are part of the fabric of the community. Their location, site characteristics, and density define our neighborhoods, our land use, and our transportation energy, which is 96 percent dependent on oil and consumes 68 percent of the oil we use. Our sprawling land development patterns dictate heavy use of auto transport and preclude more efficient rail and non-motorized commutes.

Green building and development guidelines that recognize the opportunities for improved land use and transportation efficiency will soon appear in building codes and “form-based” zoning. And new personal vehicles can be a part of our Whole Community, distributed energy future. In addition to hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV) and flex-fuel hybrids that can use 86 percent ethanol (E85), plug-in hybrids (PHEV) can use distributed generation energy sources, such as a PV array on a south facing garage. On those sunny afternoons when the car is not in the garage, the array could feed the grid. Vehicles fully charged with off-peak power overnight can be plugged in at home or in parking garages during the day to feed the grid during periods of peak demand. This vehicles-to-grid (V2G) system can provide electrical storage for intermittent distributed generation like wind and solar power, which cannot be controlled to match peak demand.

This vision for Whole Community energy integrates 1) energy-efficient, green buildings, planned and developed in mixed-use, compact, and transit-oriented developments; 2) on-site a distributed electricity generation to add resilience and efficiency to the local power system; and 3) electrified transportation vehicles with V2G storage capacity.

The Commonwealth is undertaking a major study on state energy policy this year. I would hope that it takes Randolph’s vision as a starting point.

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One response to “The Next Great Thing: Whole Community Energy”

  1. I hope you are right. One thing that concerns me is the secretive Virginia Hydrogen Roundtable which is supposed to make a presentation before the GA this Fall.
    This could be a major, purposeful distraction from the badly needed Whole Community concept.
    Hydrogen is still in the future, but we need distributed power NOW.

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