Urban Renewal with Renewables

Diana Mckeown
Metro CERT Coordinator, The Green Institute

How does an urban community connect to renewable energy? This article explores options for urban dwellers who want to support and create renewable energy that they can use at home, for their cars, and in their neighborhoods.

Windy Cities?

Wind turbines have become the majestic poster child for renewable energy, with their grand towers and sleek blades spinning in the wind. In the last decade in Minnesota, wind energy has emerged as the number one choice for utilities as they work to diversify their portfolios by including more renewable sources of electricity. This increased demand has helped lower the cost of wind energy significantly, often making it comparable in price to a new coal plant—and sometimes even cheaper. However, cost-effectiveness requires average wind speeds of at least eight miles per hour. Generally speaking, most urban areas never experience those wind speeds, making urban wind turbines an inefficient choice. There are products which claim to be urban on-roof wind turbines, but buyer beware—many of them don’t work as advertised. Home Power magazine has some useful recommendations at urbanturbines.org. In many cases, the best option for urban dwellers who want to support wind energy is to purchase wind power in kilowatt hour (kWh) blocks from their utility for a nominal amount per month. Contact your utility representative for information about their green power and wind power options.

Here Comes the Sun!

When urban communities want to invest in renewable energy, I often advise them to consider solar. You may be surprised to learn that the Twin Cities has the same solar potential—the intensity of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface—as Houston, Texas and Jacksonville, Florida. Harnessing this power is a more practical and effective urban renewable energy option than wind, though it has often been less popular because of the higher price tag and longer return on investment. Luckily, solar is becoming increasingly accessible thanks to new technologies and incentive programs, such as those listed below. The sun’s energy can be harnessed to produce electric or thermal energy, and there are specific solar technologies for each. When most people think of solar power, photovoltaic (PV) panels, used to create electricity, come to mind. However, there are other options. Solar hot water heating is another good option for homes and is generally cheaper than solar PV, often having a shorter payback time. Solar hot air heating for ventilation can be a good option for larger commercial and industrial buildings. Consider these other types of solar power when planning your project.

Now is the Time!

There are a number of incentives to encourage solar power projects. The Minnesota Office of Energy Security’s website provides links to incentives and rebates. Additionally, Xcel Energy will be starting a new program in 2010 called Minnesota Solar Rewards which will assist businesses and homeowners with the upfront capital for installing solar panels. In return, the recipient commits to a 20-year contract to retain the renewable energy attributes produced, which will help Xcel meet their renewable energy goals.

Efficiency and Conservation First!

Of course, before you start picking out solar panels, turn to efficiency measures. By reducing your home’s overall energy usage through measures like CFLs, weatherization, and behavior changes, you will be able to power a larger portion of your energy use with the sun—and save money and energy at the same time!

What about Biomass?

Interest is growing in biomass (organic waste such as food, tree limbs, woodchips, etc. which can be burned or biochemically converted into energy) as another renewable option for urban areas. In the Twin Cities metro area, District Energy St. Paul operates a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, which runs on urban wood waste, and we are likely to see additional projects in the near future.

Take the Next Step!

Collaborating with your neighbors can make renewable energy accessible to more people. If community members are interested in finding a way to produce their own power they can contact the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team to choose, plan, and implement an energy project in their neighborhood.

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Minnesota Office of Energy Security St. Paul, Minnesota, 800-657-3710 energy.mn.gov

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