In April (April 12th, to be exact) I wrote a piece that explored how to find a way to disconnect from all the infrastructure grids in a context of existing urban (and historic) rowhouses. I concluded that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a single rowhouse to wiggle free of all the connections: sewer, water, gas, electricity, communications.
But after some study, I realized that perhaps at the scale of a single block, it might be possible. In fact, perhaps working at the block-sized scale would be the best way to begin to create a new kind of infrastructural network. I used our block of 57 rowhouses as an example. Here’s our block:
Recently a reader wrote with a list of 7 questions about my proposed one-block demonstration project. And so, Part II of the inquiry. Here are his questions:
- What are the barriers to doing this? What would it take?
- Would local government support help?
- What building code changes would be required?
- How would it be financed?
- Could a charitable foundation help?
- What would the demonstration project cost?
- How would the knowledge gained be transferable?
Let me try and tackle these queries. First, to recap, for our block I proposed a District CHP plant, fired by biomass or something like that, as the main source of heating and power. And then a District Waste-water Treatment plant to recycle water. These technologies exist – nothing new here, really. Then I proposed augmenting those facilities with renewables- solar array, wind turbines, and added composting for a variety of solid wastes. All of this stuff gets deployed in the alley at the middle of our block. Perhaps with room left over for community gardens.
As far as I know, there is no demonstration project like this in an existing urban setting. Some new stuff, but nothing historic and retrofitted. But unless we tear all of our cities down and start over, we are going to have to learn how to remake the existing urban infrastructure into a sustainable set of systems. So: onward.
Barriers? Well, first I will have to achieve consensus with my neighbors. Every one of them. Since doing this new infrastructure will involve cost, disruptions during construction, a pooling of private real estate for common use, and potential missteps as we figure this out, I suspect achieving consensus will be very difficult, if not impossible. Only when my neighbors can see and feel the compelling need for an alternate to existing infrastructure will they be inclined to sign on. It’s going to be a stretch.
While some of us feel strongly that we cannot do this fast enough, and have a pretty good idea what lies ahead for our obsolete cities, most of my neighbors don’t feel any real sense of urgency. For most Americans, as I said recently here, it’s just a matter of “Once we get through this.”
Then there are all kinds of legal barriers. Vacating the alley. Setting up some form of block-wide utility corporation to own and manage the infrastructure. Do we set the block up as some kind of condo-like legal arrangement? Lots to figure out here.
And of course, the local government, the City of Washington, could help a lot. There are utilities back in the alley underground, and these will need relocating. And all the overhead wires will have to go, once we’re ready. The City could offer financial help, too – incentives, tax breaks, grants and low-interest loans.
Washington has a program called “Green Energy DC,” set up to offer incentives for renewable energy improvements. But their whole allocation for 2009 is already spoken for, and the total amount available is $2,000,000. it will take more than that to get our block off the grids, so not this year, or next.
The program, which passes through federal money, is aimed at solar and wind energy. Interestingly, they specifically bar utilities from participation, and since we are creating a block sized utility, this could be a problem. Programs at the municipal level really aren’t in place to assist with a project of this scope and kind. Not yet, anyway.
The biggest stumbling block of all: the building code. Here in DC every project must submit what’s called an Environmental Impact Screening Form. The form asks lots of questions about utilities, discharges, etc. Water flow in gallons per minute, sewage flow in gallons per minute, that kind of stuff. And questions about solid waste as well. And when you submit the form, it is routed to all kinds of city departments – health, police, fire, as well as the building department itself. Currently you cannot get a building permit without submitting, and review time is running about a year.
Essentially, any building permit can be issued once the city is clear that it is protecting the health and welfare of its citizens. Since nobody has ever tried this before here, and since the bureaucracy is in full bloom, I think we can either get some help and cooperation, or we can go home.
Financing the operation would be a trick too. Maybe we could try for some Stim funding. This is a pretty experimental undertaking, with lots of potential problems. Not exactly a slam dunk for yield-oriented capitalizers, I suspect. Banks? Probably not. Maybe we could find a lending institution interested in bolstering their “green” standing. Sounds like a pretty long shot to me.
Maybe the next avenue would be large corporations with an interest in or stake in our trial run. Maybe BP would actually like to demonstrate what “Beyond Petroleum” looks like, and how it works. And I guess the car guys are out.
It’s unlikely that the guys who make our packaged District heating, power, cooling and water units can afford to spot us the equipment, so that won’t work. Any other financing ideas, readers?
Of course the best route, and the most likely, is to get a charitable organization interested in the project. Since I think the cost will be in the neighborhood of $3 million plus, it will likely have to be one of the bigger charitable guys, but this seems like the best route.
Cost, as I said, seems to me to be north of $3 million. That works out to something like $53,000 per unit. I could be off by a lot – I worked up this estimate bysimply surfing the web, rather than calling my local green engineers. But if I am off, it is likely by less than a factor of 4 or so. I need to spend some more time with the numbers. Anybody got any thoughts?
As to transferring the knowledge, that’s the easiest part I think. Document every step, and misstep, and then put it up on a website, write a book, get published in magazines or newspapers (if there are any left), do a TV series, an indie film. I think many would be interested in the process of designing, constructing, and operating.
One block of historic rowhouses in one of the largest historic districts in the nation – now off the grid. An existing city block, the most essential urban module, now free of the vicissitudes of the existing grids. Nice.
So thanks, readers, for the questions. Now, readers, answers?
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