Naysayers have long ridiculed solar and wind energy because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.
For those technologies to work, they say, we would need large batteries for backup and battery technology was lagging badly.
There's an element of truth in all this, but battery technology is catching up. In fact, a king-sized lithium-ion battery, central to a carbon-free community, is going to be built from scratch near the airport in Denver, Colo.
Developers of the project are calling it Pina Station Next. They also referred to it as a city. But what it really is going to be is a mixed-use development on roughly 160 hectares of land near the airport and near the end of the newly completed rail line that runs from downtown Denver north easterly to the sprawling airport.
This new development will be a far cry from the typical suburban development of cookie-cutter houses, where few people think twice about where their energy is coming from.
Denver and Denver County, which own the airport, will contribute financial support for the project. The sunshine that falls on the canopy over the airport's massive parking lot will be collected with solar arrays by Xcel Energy Inc., the local utility.
Xcel will also contribute a one-megawatt grid-connected battery to provide backup power.
The battery will be connected to a building presently being built by Panasonic, the Japanese-based global conglomerate.
Panasonic had been part of the team that developed a smaller-scale effort in Fujisawa, a suburb of Tokyo. Built as a "sustainable smart town" three years ago, Fujisawa has carbon dioxide emissions that are just 30 per cent of those in a conventional community and property values over the three-year period have risen by 25 per cent.
That got Panasonic thinking of something bigger. So after receiving proposals from 20 U.S. cities, it chose Denver for the project, which will be 10 times larger than Fujisawa.
The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the nearby city of Golden was brought on board as a consultant because the project fits nicely into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory program.
"The parties involved here are trying to figure out how you design a really large-scale build-out, a city from the start," says Matthew Futch, who heads the lab's business-development efforts. He says he hopes the end result will be a kind of template "on how different businesses might come together and do this.
"It's a kind of experiment that might be used in other places."
Panasonic will benefit from the king-sized battery that will be installed in its building. If it weren't for that, the company would have to install an expensive diesel-powered auxiliary backup system to run its elevators and computers day and night.
Matthew Crosby, Panasonic's program manager for the project, said it was soon found that other companies were interested in joining the Denver project.
The result is what people are calling a portfolio microgrid. Most microgrids in the United States are managed by one owner — usually a military base or some other large installation, like a college campus.
As more companies became involved, there has been more research on the potential for other common, low-carbon energy systems at the site. That includes common heating and cooling systems, more rooftop solar cells and a way of making methane from sewage.
They have even looked at the possibility of designing a regenerative braking system to extract electricity from the airport trains that stop at Pina Station Next every 15 minutes.
"We expect the project will go beyond net-zero carbon," Crosby says.
So while the emphasis has been on developing a sustainable energy model, Crosby says that "at the end of the day, it's all about delivering a sustainable business model."
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.