15 March 2013

from providing a service to enabling low carbon futures: Boulder as a Sustainable City:

Looking west from the city's edgelends toward central Boulder from the Goose Creek Path. All photos from January 2013, taken by Alan Wiig.

A sustainable city has been defined in many ways. Yet the most frequently quoted understanding is from Our Common Future in 1987. This is a vision of the city that is able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. - By Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin, from After Sustainable Cities? 
At the heart of these efforts [to mitigate climate change] have been attempts to redesign and reconfigure the infrastructure networks through which energy is produced and consumed in cities, and which shape their vulnerability to climate change [...] Because of the critical role that such systems play in shaping resource use and urban development, addressing climate change depends on their fundamental transformation. In short, strategic intervention in urban infrastructure networks will be central to any effort to achieve a low carbon transition. - By Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Castán Broto, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin from Cities and the Low Carbon Transition

What makes a city sustainable? How are cities adapting to climate change and attempting to reduce their energy use through infrastructural change? Boulder, Colorado has been concerned with this issue since at least 2002, when the City Council passed "a resolution in support of the Kyoto Protocol and set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012" (source). Over the past decade the city has, among other efforts, attempted to lower their electricity consumption through more efficient production and delivery, which they are working to achieve through the real-time monitoring and analysis provided by a smart electrical grid (source). By knowing in real time how much energy the city is using and will need, the electrical utility can produce just enough power to meet demand. Boulder was a pilot city where Xcel Energy installed what they call a 'SmartGridCity', describing this as " a comprehensive system that includes a digital, high-speed broadband communication system; upgraded substations, feeders and transformers; smart meters; and Web-based tools available through My Account. Customers that live in this area are now among the first in the world to enjoy a system using smart grid technology to deliver its electricity." (source). Boulder and Xcel Energy are currently at odds with the ability of the utility to adequately deliver on the promise of the smart grid, and the city may take over the system and run it themselves (see Boulder's Energy Futures website). Regardless of who manages the electricity, the responsive, analytic, 'smart' capabilities of Boulder's electricity utility no longer provides energy alone. It now enables sustainability. The materiality of this relationship is latent in the infrastructure itself, as it holds, delivers, and for the end-user, provides a vital component of contemporary life. Whereas in the past, municipal infrastructures provided a service such as power or water or transportation. Now a digital overlay--a smart meter and smart grid--impart these efficient attributes, and the system enables a this transition toward smart and sustainable urbanism.

These power lines follow the mid-block alley through the neighborhood. 25th Street looking west between Pine Ave. and Spruce Ave.
The intent of a smart grid is to do implement sustainability; the 'sustainability' is found in the relationships between the electrical meters dispersed throughout the city, the residents who use the power, and the system itself. Sustainability cannot be located in particular places: it is impossible to point at it or touch it in the city. If however, sustainability is a factor of more efficient energy usage, then the ability for Boulder to become sustainable is embodied in its electrical infrastructure, in the jumbled network of wires, pylons and poles, right-of-ways, transformers, meters, outlets and plugs linking the power plants to the users.

Like any city, the infrastructural landscape of electricity in Boulder passes throughout the city's built and natural environments. Wires stretch overhead, utility poles promenade through mid-block back alleys in the residential core, disappearing underground in the downtown commercial corridor. By considering sustainability as a factor of energy use, Boulder is effectively making this landscape of energy visible in new ways, a visibility that, as Stephen Graham argues with regards to infrastructure in general (cite tk), typically becomes apparent only when it fails.

A smart meter.

The same smart meter, mounted to the wall of a home on Mapleton Avenue.
But then what does sustainability actually, actively do for the city, and where does it do this work? Day-to-day for the resident or passer-by, there is little to nothing different about using electricity in Boulder than in any other place—urban or not—in the United States. The electrical outlets in buildings are the same two pronged or three pronged interfaces between personal devices like a lamp or a laptop charger and the overall grid; streetlights and stoplights shine with the same intensity; the power lines and pylons tracking through the neighborhoods and into the surrounding countryside are of a similar aesthetic to elsewhere. The intent of the smart grid is not to change the common utility of electrical energy, but, through an networked, analytic intervention, to change how electricity is used in the city. Through incremental adjustment the goal is to achieve city-wide change. Like all infrastructures, electricity is visible in what it does not in what it is: streetlights cast light not just to cast light, but to illuminate an area so passerby can see where they are walking. Sustainability is latent in the reduced carbon footprint of the city, even if it is not built into any landmark objects that might visually represent this turn toward a new era of networked urbanism.

In order to better conceptualize this sustainability-as-infrastructure, I spent some time in Boulder in January 2013 investigating the spaces of electricity in the city. I wanted to trace the flow of energy into the landscape itself and back towards its origins, and in doing so to materialize energy and consequently sustainability within the electrical infrastructure itself.

Within central Boulder, the electrical system mainly connects buildings to power lines, running wires overhead onto buildings and to the smart meters before powering appliances and other devices inside. The simplest way to find the electrical grid is to look up, find the power lines and follow them to the closest substation, where the high voltage power is regulated down to a level that individual homes or businesses can use. Attached to the substation should be taller, high voltage power lines heading toward a power plant.

An electricity substation alongside Goose Creek, 28th St. and Mapleton Ave.

The same substation in daylight, looking west from the parking lot for Boulder Rock Club climbing gym.

A few blocks away from where I was staying was a substation alongside a utility right-of-way for a set of high voltage lines that head out of the city and toward a power plant just visible on the eastern horizon. The local grid in the neighborhood connects into this substation behind the Boulder Valley YMCA, next to the parking lot for the East Mapleton Ballfield as well as the Boulder Rock Club climbing gym. This substation then connects to a high-voltage system that runs parallel to Goose Creek, cutting overhead along a concrete path that follows the creek downstream and out of town.

Looking west at Goose Creek, Goose Creek Path, and the high voltage power lines overhead.

As the path continues east, passing through culverts and under  streets, it quickly enters Boulder's edgelands, an indeterminate zone of light industry, open fields, and long uninterrupted vistas of grassland and sky. The high voltage lines eventually diverge from the path, heading south-east while the path continues alongside the creek. The creek and utility right of way provide a path for walkers and cyclists, but also a habitat for hundreds of prairie dogs in an area where otherwise low, dispersed commercial warehouses and offices and their parking lots populate the terrain. This corridor cuts through the city's fringe, ending at the more prominent commercial and residential zones of the city. Even though it is on the margins, by virtue of bringing electricity into the city, this space is as much a part of the sustainable city as any other.

For Boulder, creating a sustainable city has not required building new urban districts. In this instance, the sustainable city is infrastructural, and it extends the city's desires out past the city limits, into the regional power grid and into the Front Range of Colorado itself. 

Prairie dog paths in the snow, radially moving between burrows.

The high voltage power lines heading east into the Front Range.
 A complete set of pictures is available at my Flickr page.

No comments:

Post a Comment