Future of low-carbon homes in smart cities being invented in metro Denver
by Allen Best
If claims of net-zero (also called zero-net) buildings and projects are becoming more common in the United States, a 382-acre development taking shape on the prairie near Denver International Airport may have few, if any, peers in the world.
“It is fairly unique in the comprehensiveness of the technologies,” said Peter Bronski, who represented Panasonic, the company that is the main driver of the project, at a recent breakfast presentation in Denver sponsored by the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association and the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.
Panasonic may be best known for its consumer electronics goods, such as televisions, but those goods constitute less than 10 percent of the corporation’s total business. Rather, mobility and connectivity describe the greater swath of what Panasonic does, said Bronski.
In a new push, Panasonic has been aiming to deliver technological expertise and experience in the drive toward creating low-carbon, high-efficiency urban developments bundled together with advanced electronics. The general term is smart city, and Panasonic has an enterprise specifically devoted to smart city development, called CityNOW.
Panasonic’s first delivery was in Japan, at a former factory site of the company near Tokyo. The Fujisawa project has enough renewable energy systems to provide power for up to three days.
In the United States, Panasonic sifted through 22 possible cities before settling on Denver in 2014 as a laboratory. It also has relocated its Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co. Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co. division from New Jersey to the site. The 112,500-square foot operations and technology center opened in September and has more than 300 employees.
The location at Peña Station was crucial to Denver’s choice, Panasonic officials have said. It provides connectivity by mass transit, a shift away from reliance on cars, such as is found at the former Stapleton airport site.
At Peña Station Next, as Panasonic calls it, a great many futuristic technologies are being put into place. Street lights are to use lower-energy LED technology but also are to be “smarter” in that they can dim when fewer people are out and about after midnight. The first driverless shuttle, developed by a company in France, has been put into place, to shuttle visitors between the rail stop and the new Panasonic headquarters.
In terms of energy, the Peña Station project is perhaps best understood as a microgrid. The idea is that it will be more-or-less self-contained, emphasizing solar collection and battery storage. As described by Panasonic, the project is designed to prove the efficacy of high-capacity batteries in a microgrid. It will be part of a larger initiative that includes a 1.3-megawatt alternating current canopy solar installation. This will involve Xcel Energy through its subsidiary, Public Service Co. Xcel will own the installation, and Panasonic will service it.
The real estate developer, L.C. Fulenwider, intends to entice hotels, retailers, and other commercial and residential developments to the site. Work has begun on a 219-unit apartment project.
Two other projects underway in Denver were briefly noted in the breakfast session. The Stapleton development along Interstate 70 has a high rate of solar penetration, about 20 percent. By 2019, Stapleton homes may be generating more electricity than they consume during daylight hours. Xcel plans a battery storage demonstration, and will be studying what works best at six residential projects, explained Andre Gouin, business technology consultant for Xcel Energy.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is involved in several projects that seek to further wring out energy efficiencies while maximizing renewable energies. It is involved in what has been called an eco-retrofit of the low-income Sun Valley neighborhood east of Federal Boulevard and between Colfax Avenue and 6th Avenue.
A major demonstration project is planned at the National Western Center along I-70. NREL is part of that project, along with the City of Denver, Denver Water, and the organization that puts on the stock show every January
All of these as well as the Panasonic project can be called net-zero energy districts. Unlike a single building or entire towns or cities, the “district is the optimal scale to accelerate sustainability,” said Shanti Pless, an energy efficiency research engineer at NREL. It’s small enough to allow innovations, he added, but those innovations can provide lessons in how to implement solutions at larger scales.
But there are basic principles for low-impact building complexes. It starts with achieving maximum energy efficiency in buildings, then calculating how much solar collection is needed and where it will be located.
Tied to that is renewable heat, such as passive solar or ground-source heat pumps, and then maximum control of loads.
“Getting this right at the very start is critical,” said Pless.
At the NREL campus in Golden, not far off I-70, Pless also works at the relatively new Energy Systems Integration Facility, where various experiments are ongoing in an effort to put all this together. One component is studying how to integrate electric vehicles into the grid. NREL explains that it’s research examines the interaction between EVs, building energy systems, utility grids, and renewable energy sources. “We work with automakers, charging station manufacturers, and utilities to test control systems and technologies that allow EVs to communicate with the smart grid and play an active role in building and grid management,”
In short, there’s a lot happening along a 26-mile segment of Interstate 70 in metropolitan Denver that will inform homes of the future, how they connect to the grid, and even how we travel.