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Next-Generation Infrastructure

May 16, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThis spring, yet another Presidential appeal for fixing the nation’s “raggedy” infrastructure (his word choice) failed to stir a response from Congress. However, bolder moves elsewhere to renew these critical services are reported here. I’m highlighting the following initiatives because they epitomize the new norms needed to “future-proof” our infrastructure. Such strategems are spelled out in my new book, Next-Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, released this week by Island Press. The book promotes ways to optimize the collective workings of urban systems: green our heat and power; leverage natural resources; improve social contexts; and adapt to a changing climate—in all, how to plan a new wave of public works at lower costs and with crosscutting benefits.

Close to home, one audacious project recently caught my eye. The township of Hempstead, Long Island has erected its very own renewable energy park, featuring wind and solar power, ground-source heating and cooling, electric-vehicle charging, a fuel cell, a net-zero energy office and aquaculture facility. When networked, all of these components constitute what my book refers to as an “infrastructural ecology,” specifically, co-located services that cost-effectively share flows of energy and resources in a closed-loop system. Here, for example, wind energy splits seawater into oxygen and hydrogen; the latter is used in a hydrogen vehicle fueling station. Hydrogen in turn runs the fuel cell, which produces reliable electricity plus warm-water to support the shellfish farm. The solar canopy/carport powers the service vehicles and a 60 kilowatt solar field meets all electrical demands at the town’s geothermally heated and cooled office – in all, a terrific ecotourism destination! Infrastructural ecologies demonstrate the first of my book’s five principles for next-gen infrastructure: systems should be multipurpose, interconnected and synergistic.

Another of the book’s precepts is “de-carbonizing” infrastructure. Announced last month, a long-abandoned open pit copper mine and its adjacent waste-rock dump site is getting a high-performance makeover. When permitted by federal energy regulators, this brownfield, which is situated in the arid landscape northwest of Tucson, AZ., will be transformed into a 100-megawatt solar plant and a 150-megawatt closed-loop pumped storage facility—think “battery.”  In a recycling loop, solar energy will power the pumping of reservoir water held in the pit’s depth to an upper reservoir on the waste-rock site. Here, conventional hydroelectric turbines will churn out reliable power for the grid as the water drops back down into the pit. Where elsewhere, large-scale solar developments in sensitive, pristine desert sites have foundered under environmental litigation, the Sacaton Pumped Storage Facility, a “post-industrial” power plant, will be a model for carbon- and conflict-free “Big Solar.” How might this demonstration-project scale up?  The U.S. Department of Energy recently reported that there are similar disturbed and contaminated lands throughout the States sufficient to house 715 Gigawatts of utility-scale solar power production—60% more power than will be required for the U.S. to be adequately supplied with renewable energy in 2050!

My book concludes with a road-map for state, local, and public-private partners to realize holistic solutions for infrastructure renewal, absent federal leadership. Among other strategies, it emphasizes roles that innovative financing initiatives will play. As a perfect example, the New York Green Bank  was opened for business just this February, with its initial capitalization of $210 million towards it $ 1 billion goal, announced by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. Modeled on California’s Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (also the model for Obama’s proposed National Infrastructure Bank), NY Green Bank will be the largest in the nation. Its goal is to mobilize financing for credit-worthy “resilient and clean energy systems.” As designed, it will be a self-sustaining model that will add value to public dollars by leveraging private capital. Projects to be supported by the NY Green Bank include a broad range of commercially proven technologies, including solar, wind and other renewable energy generation technologies; electricity load reduction; on-site clean generation, and similar projects that support the State’s clean energy objectives.

The above three initiatives are each promising markers on the road-map to rejuvenating America’s critical systems. They inspire hope in me as they suggest we have not lost our capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.

Originally posted at hillarybrown.net