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Nouvelles énergies pour la ville du futur

Eva Boxenbaum
Brice Laurent
Annalivia Lacoste

Partie III - Vers un nouveau modèle de développement urbain

Creating West Village, a zero net energy community on the campus of UC Davis

Interview with Nicole W. Biggart

Nicole W. Biggart

Note de l’éditeur

Nicole W. Biggart is Professor of Management at University of California – Davis, Chevron Chair in Energy Efficiency, and director of the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center. In this interview, she discusses the case of a zero net energy community on the campus of UC Davis. This community is an experiment at multiple levels. It is a demonstration and learning instrument for researchers, industries and public bodies, one that integrates technical and social dimensions. It took place in a controlled environment where conditions for success converged.

Texte intégral

You have been engaged for the last few years in developing West Village, a Zero Net Energy community on the campus of University of California – Davis (UC Davis). What are you trying to achieve in this project?

Energy used in buildings has now exceeded the energy used by vehicles, so if we are going to cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with energy use, we need to control how our energy is used in buildings. That is a very powerful mission, to which I want to contribute. I am involved in building a community called West Village, which has chosen to be a Zero Net Energy community, i.e., a community that produces as much energy as it needs on an annual basis. When it’s completely built, it will be the largest Zero Net Energy community in North America. Many buildings have achieved Zero Net Energy status, but it is still relatively novel to build a community at that scale. We’re building it on the campus of UC Davis. Although it is successful, there are some real caveats, such as the length of time it has taken to get to where we are now.

How did the idea of Zero Net Energy community emerge?

The first intent was actually to provide more affordable housing on campus. It was not a Zero Net Energy project to begin with. That idea came on after the approval of the housing project. There were some key people on the campus, both planners and faculty, as well as some external stakeholders who said: “We think Zero Net Energy is technically feasible, should we try to do it?” That was when the initial planning models started to take shape, driven by Chevron Energy Solutions. They did the initial modeling of wind size and solar size to figure out if it could indeed be done. It was an emerging process, like “look, we’ve got an opportunity, could we do it?” rather than one proclaiming: “We’re going to build a ZNE community” and then doing it. As part of this emergent process, they brought in the appliance manufacturers and the solar people. It didn’t happen all at once, it really was a co-learning kind of process.

Who is involved in realizing this project?

Numerous stakeholders have aspirations for this project. Three central ones are the State of California, the UC Davis campus, and the developer. First, the State of California wants all new residential buildings to be Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings by 2020 and all new commercial buildings to be so by 2030. The question for California is whether ZNE can work at the community level, not just at the building level. Since state funding is involved, there’s real state interest in what we find here.

Secondly, the UC Davis campus has grown and will continue to grow. Davis is one of the eleven campuses of the University of California and the campus that possesses by far the largest amount of land. The land is not an issue for this campus; we have enough property to build our own community. The question is whether it can be done in a way that is affordable. Controlling the cost of energy is part of the affordability. Housing in California is relatively expensive, although Davis is not as expensive as some of the coastal communities. When we are recruiting faculty or students from other parts of the United States, they come to California and say: “Oh my God, I can’t afford a house here.” The cost of housing is a real challenge for us in terms of attracting the high-quality scholars that we want to come. Another real concern is whether it will respect UC Davis’ traditions. We’re now building housing for faculty, graduate students and staff, something that has only been done in a limited way in the past and this changes the profile of campus life.

Thirdly, the developer is concerned with whether they can make money. The developer that ended up being chosen for this project was not a “green” developer but more of a standard fiscally-disciplined developer – a very good developer who is doing quality work, but not one that is specially known for sustainable buildings. There are good reasons for this choice. The idea is that we should be able to make this work with a regular developer, someone who simply wants to make money, because then it can maybe be reproduced. If you pick a developer with a specialized commitment to green, it may be harder to reproduce in the mainstream.

Is this project the first experiment that the UC Davis campus is doing with green building?

There has been commitment to sustainability on campus for a long time; we have a history of innovative housing forms, one of which is quite well known. Architecture students often come to Davis just to visit a city neighborhood called Village Homes, which was built in the mid 1970’s. It was very unusual at the time. The houses were sited for passive solar and are smaller than typical for the area; they have natural drainage rather than sewers, and there is edible landscape and community gardens. On campus, we have an extraordinary number of sustainably designed buildings23 that are in use or in the planning stages, including Gallagher Hall, the Graduate School of Management home that I helped to develop as dean, which is certified LEED Platinum24. We have the world’s first LEED Platinum Winery and Brewery.

What is the California government trying to achieve by its involvement in this project?

The California government is quite broke. We have a big deficit and all kinds of problems, but the one thing all Californians – left, right, center –agree on is the environment. It is not an issue in California, which is really quite extraordinary. Republicans, Democrats, everybody is into sustainability. Maybe there are some differences in how you go about it, but it is the one thing we all agree on, and that we have agreed on for a very long time. We have the strictest building codes in the U.S. AB 32, which is the Assembly Bill 32 (32 refers to 1832). It has many, many different parts and is very much influencing the way buildings are going to be built. All new residential buildings have to be Zero Net Energy (ZNE) by 2020, which is very soon, all new commercial buildings by 2030. So there is tremendous pressure to figure out how to do this.

What attracted the developer to this project?

One of the things that were attractive to the developer was the land. UC Davis has 5000 acres of land, which is significantly more than UC Berkeley and UCLA, which have fewer than 200 acres each. So land is not an issue. Equally important, the campus has its own authority to build and to study the environmental impact of projects. When the campus decides to develop, it can basically begin the work. The developer didn’t have to deal with local authorities at all but could simply talk to the University, which has control over the land. This autonomy became a very important fact in attracting the developer.

Another element that was really critical to getting the developer on board was the workshops. The developer had never done a sustainable community before. The campus held a series of workshops on technical devices and processes, in which companies that had lighting, heating and cooling equipment could come and demonstrate the latest tech. They held a series of workshops on different technologies so that the developer and all the subcontractors became comfortable with the idea that a ZNE community could in fact be built. There were technical seminars on a range of everything from water irrigations systems, the amount of rainfall that falls on that site, how rainfall is recycled and is used as part of the water, etc. The developers were not necessarily familiar with sustainability to begin with, but they got to see all the latest, innovative stuff with the campus planning people and the local contractors who wanted to bid on it, and they all became quite comfortable with it.

How did the relationship among stakeholders work out?

This project was a living laboratory. It was a way of learning how to build this kind of housing, how to partner together, how to use the project as a way to teach students, graduate students, particularly how to do building sciences, landscape science and landscape architecture, etc. It was an occasion for everybody to come together on all of these things.

There were many partnerships, and that’s part of what took so much time. It has not been the traditional planning where you say: “Okay, here’s the land, we know the planning, you have the permit, let’s go and do it.” This project required so much negotiation every step of the way, because there was no template for how to actually do it. Some of the groups had to come together and it took a very long time. The basic plan was to take the housing stock and reduce the amount of energy through energy efficient design and energy efficient technology. Then renewable energy is used to provide what is needed. In this case, that is solar PV panels on the rooftops and as shading for parking lots.

There have been many players on the periphery, advocacy groups, consulting groups, who have done studies of energy use and modeling. Everybody has been very happy to be a part of this project. It has been a real collection of people who have come together to contribute to the realization of this project. There have been opportunities for all these different groups to work in a very flexible way. I think flexibility has been hugely important. You know, at the start, with this kind of project, you know exactly what you are going to do, but afterwards you’re willing to kind of move to the left and move to the right and move to the goal, but not in a straight line. The sub-goals have been flexible, but the shared goals at the top were clear early on. I think that the project offered training grounds that were critical for its success.

Is energy produced and used in a closed circle within the Zero Net Energy community?

No, the units are connected to the grid through Pacific Gas & Electric. Energy is produced by solar panels and goes on to the grid; there is net metering so the buildings actually draw energy off of the grid. The idea is that over the year, there’s a balance between what is produced and what is drawn. Given the way the regulations are structured now, there’s a limit to how much energy a community or an entity can produce without it becoming a Utility. The community right now needs 4 megawatts and that will grow to 12 megawatts. They had to run conduits and install inverters from the solar arrays running into each of the units and make sure each apartment would have a corresponding set of solar panels that could produce enough to offset the associated demand. Those are the sorts of issues that had to be taken into consideration, the kind of constraints that actually existed. Variations in production and consumption over the year need to be considered as well. The community produces as much energy as it requires over a year but in the summer, when the solar radiation is higher, you actually could be producing more.

How does this arrangement work in practice? Who sells and who buys energy?

It’s taken years to figure out all these contractual things. They started by asking: “Ok, how do we make it happen?” They soon realized that, under California regulation, if the developer who owns the solar panels actually sold the energy to the occupants, then they would become a Utility, and as a Utility, they would have a whole other set of regulatory obligations to respect. They were just regular developers and not going to get into this. So what they eventually decided to do is to structure the housing contracts so that they would own the energy infrastructure. The energy bill is then included in the rent, so occupants pay more rent, but they are not actually paying for the energy they use. The idea is that the occupants would pay about what you would pay for rent in housing in Davis plus what you would spend on monthly utilities. This translates to a slightly higher monthly rent, which works out well since this is high quality housing.

It does cost slightly more in terms of up-front capital for the units, because energy efficiency technology is embedded in them and the solar PV installations require initial investment. The up-front investments in energy efficiency drive down the demand enough such that less solar is needed. Since the Utilities are included in the rent, the developer can charge a higher lease rate, hopefully covering all of their upfront costs. So that is how they got around the extra expense for building these solar panels and housing units. The Zero Net Energy strategy nets the developer an extremely low energy bill and they are able to use the extra funds embedded in the rent to pay off the financing required for the energy systems.

Why would a regular traditional developer engage in this arrangement?

One, I think green building in California is becoming increasingly more interesting. The developer wanted to be alphas and saw a chance to do a full community and become branded as a green developer; they thought that this might be very attractive for them. Because we have an Energy Efficiency Center, we are very well connected to the industry and so they knew they would have an opportunity to get the latest technology. The developer thought this would be a good way to learn. The campus was very happy to work with industry partners; we have research interest in building sciences and here was a chance not only to sit in a laboratory, but to build something with our affiliate partners. We are actually doing research, using this as a laboratory. I see opportunities for social science research as well as for engineering research.

Is transport included in the energy consumption as well?

If you live there, you have to use the local transit system. There are plug- in stations for plugging electric vehicles, and cars can be parked at West Village but not on the campus. Residents bike to the main campus or ride the free transit to class. Because of its location, the UC Davis campus is not a very car-centric community; you don’t need a car to be there because the area is connected through bike routes and public transit.

To what extent do you consider West Village to be a community?

West Village is a community in multiple senses of the word. It is a community in terms of the built-in environmental solutions: solar panels at the community scale. The developers will build the number of solar panels that is sufficient to power the energy needs of a co-located community. The community also applies to the amenities. There is a community gym, a pool, and there are other amenities that are part of the community. It’s a neighborhood with the idea that people will develop a sense of community here. So “community” applies not just to the building environment, but also to the social environment.

What was the most time-consuming, expensive or difficult component of this project?

As it turns out, the technologies that were used are among the best available. They were not being developed specifically for this project, so they did not require that much. Most of the challenges had to do with getting around the institutional regulatory barrier. It really had to do with contracting and regulations, and working within the framework of the Public Utilities Commission and the local Utility. It was all of the political regulatory government stuff that was by far the trickiest issue. The technology was certainly novel on a community scale, but I don’t think that was the hard part. It was really the regulatory institutional factors that needed to be overcome. People needed to feel, particularly the developer, that this project was not a huge new risk and that they could be comfortable participating. That took a while and real convincing from all the technical seminars and regulatory meetings.

How did this project become accepted at the governmental level as a highly exceptional case?

Part of the explanation is probably the very special relationship that my center, the Energy Efficiency Center, has with the Board of Advisors of the Center. I have a very powerful board of advisors. The head of the California Energy Commission sits on it, on my left; the head of the California Public Utility Commission sits on my right; the assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Department of Energy is on the board; and so is the head of building efficiency for the retailing giant Walmart, one of the leads of sustainability for Wells Fargo Bank, the president of Chevron Energy Solutions and the Co-Director of Energy for the very important NGO Natural Resources Defense Council. Having influential people willing to partner with you is critical. I mean, if we didn’t have those sorts of connections, I don’t know if this would have been possible. It certainly would have taken more than six years; it might have taken 20 years. We were able to bring important stakeholders together in a very effective way.

In France, the sector of solar industry and solar energy is in deep crisis. The French Regulatory Commission of Energy used to support expensive energy produced by solar panels, which they do not do anymore. It’s like this all over Europe; solar producers are going bankrupt, including the German company Q-Cells, which was number one in Europe and well managed. Your budget states that you only received 8 million in public funds out of the 170 million that the project cost. Did you not receive any other subsidies or grants to make this project financially viable?

Actually, aside from a small amount of money to support planning grants, all subsidies and tax credits for the solar and efficiency measures were standard grants available to everyone. The project did not receive any real special grants. Much of the added energy infrastructure costs for the project is financed through rents on the properties, which are paying for the initial investment. These properties are actually working on market conditions; they are not subsidized beyond regular subsidies for solar. The idea is that this project has to work in the market that exists, and its all the more impressive that we did with a regular developer.

Have you, in the process of designing the buildings, thought about ways to produce more energy at certain times?

Yes, and I think that is what’s going to come next. We’re actually considering some ways for energy storage and some alternative sources of energy production to deal with peak load. Gasification system for waste looks promising, for instance. We’re talking to a major commercial battery manufacturer in China that we work with about this topic. Right now, we are using the grid as a battery, but that’s not a completely distributed approach. We have to figure out what’s next. Our approach is to partner with industry around the world to find the best solutions.

Is this model transferable to other communities?

It will probably be different in other locations, because not all places are set up to produce these kinds of community-level operations. One element that made this arrangement possible is that the campus owns the land and are able to take care of all the entitlements and the land risk, in this case with a 65-year ground lease. Some of the major decisions that were made early on enabled the project to go forward; everybody agreed to them. Also, the University of California is not subject to building requirements because we are not regulated by the State. That’s one of the differences. We are our own building authority. So some elements were easier for us than they may be for other communities.

One issue that we should consider is the social ramifications of Zero Net Energy communities like West Village. For instance, we’re putting our energy into the grid and we’re drawing from it. Now the grid is a collective good that’s been paid for by people all over the State. And yet, we’re using it like a bank account. We put money in, we take money out, but somebody is paying for the bank, and that somebody is not the local community. So there is a social equity issue that I think emerged. How do we deal with this issue as a society?

I think the next goal for Zero Net Energy is to engage in a conversation about how to formulate its society-wide application. West Village is a very important step. Technically, in terms of the contracts that have been developed and the pricing of energy, many lessons are being learned and will continue to be learned. This community is being developed in phases and it will actually take ten years for the entire community to be built. There are plans for each phase but we will rethink the technologies, and update them in response to new developments. Therefore, what will be built in the last phase will probably be quite different from what we expected in the first phase, and we will continue to learn. There is a certain flexibility that has already been built into the ideas.

Which response have you received from other University of California campuses or from other places within or outside of California?

The special nature of the relationship of the University of California to the State means that the most obvious way of reproducing this experience is on other UC campuses. There are a couple of other campuses that also have land and could do something similar. I anticipate that once we actually know what works, campuses like UC Irvine and UC Riverside may both do something along the same lines. In that case, we will share our knowledge with them. We have already shared with them some sub-elements of the technologies, for example the lighting. New lighting standards were developed in on our campus, which we have shared, and we will continue to share new developments on a regular basis.

What do you anticipate to be the long-term impacts of this project?

We are doing annual reports that capture what we’ve learned so far. There are also technical reports that will tell us more about the net metering over time. We are trying to document our learning. As I said earlier, this learning process will not be completed for ten years because every phase will be somewhat different. From that learning, we will identify what we think is reproducible.

Actually, the UC Davis campus does not get its energy from the local Utility but from a federal energy source. But the campus decided, in this partnership, to actually use the local Utility, PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric), because, in part, it wanted to do this project in a way that would be reproducible outside of the University setting. So the Utility was brought on to work with us in order to be able to diffuse the idea. We want to give it a chance to be reproducible.

A lot of the learning will probably relate to government issues. There will probably have to be regulatory changes at the scale of the California government in order to make these kinds of communities possible, to normalize them. West Village is highly exceptional. Nobody else is going to do this, unless they own hundreds of acres like the University and can put the land into the deal, provide professional staff, etc. But we are very much hoping that what we learn will help to contribute to the public good. I mean, we are a public university, we want to take what we learn and spread it.


23 List of campus green buildings : dings/map.html

24 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is an American rating sys- tem for green buildings, developed by the American Green Building Council.

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