Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Environment / Sustainability

Shrinking energy footprints

September 16, 2010
By Tony Phifer

Colorado State University and the city of Fort Collins are partners in a project that will help determine if urban areas can use alternative energy sources and other technology to become self-sustaining power consumers.

Can an urban area produce as much energy as it uses?

Mechanical engineering senior research associate Dan Zimmerle works with graduate student Matt Ruter on micro- and smart-grid energy research as the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory.

The project, called FortZED, aims to prove that careful management can produce a Zero Energy District, or ZED. Fort Collins and the Northern Colorado Clean Energy Cluster have partnered with CSU, New Belgium Brewing, Larimer County, and several local energy technology companies to see if an urban area can produce as much energy as it uses.

The district includes the Oval, the east side of CSU’s Main Campus, and much of downtown Fort Collins – roughly 7,000 residential and commercial customers. It’s believed to be the largest zero-energy study in the world.

Audacious goal

“It’s an audacious goal, without a doubt,” says Mike Freeman, chief financial officer for the city of Fort Collins. “There are other zero-energy districts around the world, but none are this large, and none are in areas with existing homes and businesses.

We’re taking a big footprint from an existing community and creating a zero-energy district. It’s a whole different challenge that no one else has attempted.”

FortZED first was conceived in 2007 by the Energy Task Force of UniverCity Connections, the cooperative initiative of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado that seeks to maximize community-related opportunities involving CSU, downtown Fort Collins, and the Poudre River corridor. Thanks to a Department of Energy grant, FortZED became a reality in 2008, with CSU serving as a critical asset.

Tangible assets provided by CSU

CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, the College of Engineering, and Facilities Management all have been involved in launching FortZED. The tangible assets provided by CSU include solar panels atop the Engineering Building and at the new parking garage and three existing generators that will be used at various times. A key component, however, is the InteGrid Laboratory at EECL, which provides the “smart-grid” technology that will allow FortZED participants to monitor energy consumption in the district and determine how to best manage and distribute available power.

“CSU is absolutely a critical partner in all of this,” Freeman says. “First, they are located in the core of the district. More important, many CSU faculty and facilities are involved, and all of the companies involved have a relationship with CSU. It would be much more difficult to take on a project of this type without a major research university like CSU behind us and driving it.”

Goals and project plans

One of the goals of the project is demonstrating that urban areas can exist without relying solely on traditional plants for their power. In addition to CSU’s solar inventory, FortZED can tap into solar panels at the New Belgium Brewery, and plans are in the works to create small facilities that burn trash and biomass created by the beer-brewing process.

Eventually, CSU’s proposed wind farm on the Maxwell Ranch could potentially produce the bulk of the power needed to power the district. Another key component of the project is educating residents within the district about energy conservation, with a goal of cutting use by 10 percent.

In the meantime, FortZED hopes to better manage available power through smart-grid technology, which has been available for just a few years. For instance, during peak load times on hot summer days, existing generators on CSU’s campus can be used to contribute power, easing the strain on the existing grid and lowering energy costs that rise during peak periods. Power can be moved on and off the grid to keep the system from crashing and creating blackouts.

Nothing to really see and touch

“Right now, the campus doesn’t know much about this; there’s nothing to really see and touch,” says Steve Hultin, assistant director for Facilities Management at CSU. “We’ll use our existing generators, but we don’t plan to make the campus self-sufficient with generators – we don’t want to give up our nice, quiet campus environment. The goal is to study how to connect and control the generators and get the maximum benefit from them.”

The long-term benefits of the project could be substantial. Once the project is up and running – testing will continue throughout 2010, with the full demonstration beginning in 2011 – private companies will be able to perform live tests of products and services using the technology developed by FortZED. As a result, CSU and Fort Collins will become a hotbed for smart-grid and zero-energy technology.

“FortZED has put this region on the map in terms of renewable energy and bold thinking,” Freeman says. “We’ve already had a delegate from Japan here looking at the project, and another group from India is coming. Plus, there are really significant economic benefits that will translate into more alternative energy companies looking at our area to grow their businesses.”

Saving dollars, reducing our carbon footprint

When complete, Freeman expects the Department of Energy and other entities to invest up to $300 million in the five-year project, with 200 to 300 jobs created. Alternative fuels, electric vehicles, fuel cells, and other renewable energy sources will be used to achieve zero-energy goals.

“It’s tremendously exciting to be involved in this project,” Hultin says. “We’re always trying to save the University dollars and reduce our carbon footprint. This is a real-world example of a project that really has the potential to produce great benefits.

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Fall 2010.