Public Power Magazine

FortZED: Net Zero Energy in Action


From the January-February 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 1) of Public Power

Originally published November 12, 2012

By William Atkinson
November 12, 2012

A lot of nothing is going on in a Fort Collins, Colo., community these days. That is, nothing in the sense of the net energy the community uses.

The project is called FortZED (Zero Energy District) a community-driven initiative introduced in 2007 and designed to create one of the world's largest net-zero energy districts in an existing community. The net-zero energy concept means generating or purchasing as much renewable energy as is used on an annual basis.

The FortZED district encompasses approximately four square miles that include downtown Fort Collins and nearby Colorado State University. It includes almost 6,000 residential and commercial customers (representing about 10 to 15 percent of Fort Collins Utilities' distribution system), eight distribution feeders, approximately 80 MW demand and more than 200,000 MWh/year usage. In a study with the Department of Energy, the utility was able to demonstrate peak reduction of over 20 percent on a circuit in the FortZED area during the demonstration period.

FortZED was initiated through a three-way collaboration between Fort Collins Utilities, the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster (CCEC), and UniverCity Connections. CCEC is an economic development organization that works to attract, incubate and grow Colorado's clean energy companies through collaborative initiatives. UniverCity Connections is an organization designed to build strong ties between the university and the city.

As participants see it, the success of FortZED will rely on continuing its existing partnerships, as well as extending partnership opportunities to other organizations as additional projects are developed and implemented. Current partners include local government, nonprofit organizations, leading edge companies, technology providers and institutions.

The vision and mission of FortZED are lofty: Fort Collins will be the model community for a leading and replicable net-zero energy district. FortZED aims to transform the downtown area and the main campus of Colorado State University into a net-zero energy district through conservation, efficiency, renewable sources and smart technologies.

FortZED will be realized through a systems approach with a broad portfolio of smart grid technologies, renewable energy sources and supporting public policies. Energy generation will come from renewable sources within a 50-mile radius of FortZED; renewable and conventional distributed sources within the district; and demand reduction and response within the district.

Finally, FortZED will provide a strong competitive advantage to expand existing capabilities and attract clean energy technologies to Colorado that can replicate the technical solutions embodied in FortZED in other urban environments, on campuses, and in existing and new communities nationwide and around the world.

The FortZED initiative entails four approaches: research and development, public policy, economic development, and community engagement. "In other words, we don't just want to achieve net zero," said Judy Dorsey, president and principal engineer of Fort Collins-based Brendle Group, an engineering consulting company specializing in sustainability "We also want to showcase Colorado companies, help with economic development, and engage the community. We realize that we need to engage in some public policy and some R&D to achieve this."

Strategies for achieving net zero energy and the relative contribution of each to the goal include:

  • Reducing energy-use in buildings (45 percent),
  • Developing local renewable generation (35 percent),
  • Balancing and optimizing energy sources (10 percent), and
  • Implementing smart grid infrastructure (10 percent).

There are a number of projects under the FortZED umbrella.

The Jump Start Project is a Renewable and Distributed Systems Integration (RDSI) Cooperative Study,funded in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, is an initiative to research ways to integrate renewable energy, distributed generation, energy storage, thermally activated technologies, and demand response into the electric transmission and distribution system. Fort Collins elected to use the RDSI concept and funding to jump start FortZED by testing a number of technologies that reduce peak energy use and integrate renewable energy into the district's electric energy system.

The major focus of the project is to use distributed generation resources on two utility feeders in the FortZED area, with the goal of reducing the peak on those feeders by 20 to 30 percent. "We partnered with several local companies and other organizations on this," said Steve Catanach, light and power manager for Fort Collins Utilities. Dorsey’s Brendle Group facilitated much of the writing and analysis behind the RDSI project. Spirae, an engineering firm with smart grid expertise, developed control software for the distributed resources.

Another partner, Woodward Inc., introduced a product called easYgen, which provides an easy way to parallel a distributed resource with the grid. "Typically, when you do that, it is a large piece of equipment and fairly complicated," said Catanach. "Woodward developed a much smaller piece of equipment that can be added to an emergency generator." Woodward also worked on variable fuel carburetion. One site partner, New Belgium Brewing, recovers methane from its on-site wastewater treatment plant. Woodward and other partners worked with New Belgium to develop a way to run an engine gen-set off natural gas-methane fuel mixes.

Other partners actively contributed to the Jump Start Project. Eaton Corp. provided some of the controls and low voltage switchgear. The Engines and Energy Conversions Lab at Colorado State University, which is the largest operating engines lab in the country, brought controls and resources to the mix. Colorado State University  contributes the output from a combined heat and power system.

"The county added some solar panels and load control through some of their HVAC systems," said Catanach. "The city also utilized solar panels, load control capability of PHE Vehicles, some of our emergency generation and load control in our buildings."

A second major FortZED project is the Community Energy Challenge, a grass roots campaign designed to increase energy efficiency and conservation practices among residents and businesses in the district. "As part of this initiative, people signed a pledge and held mixers at their homes to get the word out to their neighbors," said Catanach. "People have signed up and committed to taking action to reduce energy usage. We have about 2,000 people already signed up."

A third major FortZED project is smart buildings, which involves energy retrofits and solar installations on public buildings in the FortZED district through a Department of Local Affairs grant, as a way to reduce energy consumed in existing public buildings.

A fourth major FortZED project is the Smart Grid Investment Grant project, a city-wide undertaking to provide smart metering on all homes and businesses and targeted distribution system upgrades. "We are in the process of replacing all of our electric and water meters in the city," said Catanach. "We are two years into our metering rollout and are on schedule and on budget. We also feel very confident in the quality of the product we selected." One important reason for the continuing success of this rollout is that FortZED brought in a consulting firm from the start that had done metering projects before. "They helped us develop a very rigorous project management methodology, and it has really helped us to stay on track," he said.

The advanced meters and other smart grid technologies have yielded a goldmine of data. “We found that we were getting multiple low voltage flags, which was causing us some concern about how the system was operating." When the utility mapped where the events were occurring, it found a "neat little grouping of problems" in a single neighborhood that was served by a 40-year-old transformer, which, it turned out, was undersized and underperforming,” Catanach said. “The data allowed us to be proactive, rather than reactive, to customer issues," he said. "We were able to schedule that transformer change-out so it was convenient for customers, instead of having to do it as an emergency in the middle of the night."

Future—FortZED is a work in progress. "A lot of people ask, 'You guys have been working on Fort ZED for five years. Are you done yet?'" said Dorsey. "We recently completed estimates of how far along we are, and we believe that we are about 15 percent of our way toward our net-zero goal, with another 30 percent expected from projects in the pipeline."

For public power utilities interested in a similar initiative, Dorsey has a recommendation: "Make sure you leverage your effort with other related city goals that may not be driven directly by the utility, such as land-use planning, economic development, community emissions and air quality goals," she said. "This can help to provide a platform for strong community engagement and investment."

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