The U.S. electric power sector is changing in both challenging and exciting ways. In April, ULI Boston hosted a conversation that focused on new approaches to the challenges and opportunities that are to accompany the coming energy revolution.

One emerging strategy, though not yet widely implemented in new commercial and residential building developments, could provide the solution to fulfilling energy commitments: the creation of High-Performance Districts (HPDs). Still a young and nebulous concept, a HPD is characterized by a multi building project, with shared goals such as operating as carbon neutral or even energy positive. If these goals are identified early in the development process, the district can leverage common infrastructure, new technologies, and economies of scale to reach them.

The panel was moderated by John Macomber, a senior lecturer in the finance unit at Harvard Business School, and additional speakers included Christina McPike, the director of energy and sustainability at WinnCompanies, Geoff Gunn, an associate principal at Arup, and Shanti Pless, a senior research engineer at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab.

The conversation opened with an exploration of Grid Efficient Buildings (GEBs) and their future. Gunn, an electrical engineering, and energy business leader at Arup’s Boston office, explained how he defines a GEB: “Most modern buildings are responsive to internal stimuli. They adjust ventilation, temperature, and light based on the activity of the occupants. They figure out how to optimize their performance based on what’s happening inside. A GEB does all that as well but also incorporates external stimuli such as market signals to figure out how it should dispatch certain energies,” he said. Gunn takes a tiered approach to the design of HPDs, first maximizing the buildings’ efficiency so that the addition of on-site renewables can have the greatest possible impact.

“I have this vision in the future where the building’s load is completely divorced from what’s actually happening inside the building, as far as the grid sees it,” said Gunn. “The systems in the building would be making decisions to support the broader grid’s needs and not just their own. This becomes even more important as we move to an electrical grid that is primarily driven by renewable energy, when you can’t control when generation occurs.” Gunn laid out the goal, acknowledging that if we are to achieve it, we will need more sensors, more controllability, and a lot more standardization of technology.

“I’m mumbling ‘GEBs’ in the middle of the night…” joked McPike that these ideas perpetrate her dreams. While WinnCompanies operates in the world of constrained capital and caution when it comes to approval and permits, that doesn’t mean they aren’t pushing forwards with emerging energy strategies. Winn’s sustainability team has been participating in Department of Energy initiatives for years and has recently been awarded a grant to pilot grid-interactive efficient buildings. The project, chosen out of 400 concept papers submitted, will be unique in seeking a way for the concept to be applied to low- and mixed-income family housing.

“We are trying to develop a business model that works.” McPike explains, referencing Gunn’s case for more market incentives. “We’re not just using grant funding to pay for a pilot that no-one else will be able to reproduce. Our goal is to come up with a replicable and scalable solution for GEB developers—not just to tell a nice story and move on.”

Pless has coauthored A Guide to Energy Master Planning of High-Performance Districts. He boiled down his panoramic knowledge on the matter to capture some of the most important aspects. The first is a major shift in affordability: “One key tipping point that I’ve seen in the last couple of years is that the cost of new renewables, whether it’s off-shore wind or solar and storage, is becoming cheaper than running existing natural gas or fossil fuel power plants. That is a pretty critical economic trigger that’s resulted in a rush to install as much lower cost solar storage as possible.” With so much carbon-free electricity on the grid in sunny states, GEBs could suck up some of that supply rather than letting it go unused.

To access this and other webinars hosted by ULI, members can visit Knowledge Finder.

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