A technology park bets big on energy innovation

What would you do with 12 contiguous acres of underused land, smack dab in the middle of a bustling downtown?

Once part of the reputed largest furniture manufacturer in the world (Showers Brothers Furniture), and later owned by nearby Indiana University for decades, such a parcel was acquired by the City of Bloomington, Ind., in 2009.

The easy thing to do would have been to divide the land and sell it to the bevy of developers cashing in on Bloomington's robust student housing market who are hungry for more downtown land. Instead, the city decided to transform the land into the beating heart of Bloomington's tech sector and a model of sustainable urban redevelopment.

The vision for a tech park

A primary goal of Bloomington's Downtown Tax Increment Finance District, created in 1985, was to create an industrial and research park within the downtown. First steps toward realizing this goal were taken in 2005, when the state of Indiana designated a 65-acre portion of the area as a certified technology park. This economic development tool is meant to attract growth in the high-tech sector, and enables the capture of certain local and state revenue for investment in the park.

However, the Bloomington certified technology park struggled to gain footing as a tech sector hub, prompting the city to purchase a 12-acre parcel of land declared surplus property by Indiana University. Following the purchase, the city embarked on a process to develop a master plan to re-envision this largely vacant land.

Following an in-depth review process, the internal project team — including members of the legal, public works, planning, economic and sustainable development, housing and neighborhood development, engineering and utilities departments; the office of the mayor; and the Bloomington Redevelopment Commission — began working with a team of external consultants, the tech community, downtown stakeholders and other community members to complete a resource analysis and market feasibility study, a land use and redevelopment plan and an infrastructure plan.

Adding energy innovation to the equation

While the master plan that was completed in 2013 has enabled the city to move forward on many fronts to develop the area, there was one component of the original vision that remained largely an unknown: energy innovation. Energy innovation — a concept that includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, building standards, incentives, grid compatibility and microgrids — is just one of multiple features considered central to the goal of sustainable redevelopment, but it is also one of the most complex and one in which local expertise is not well developed. The project consultants included some consideration of the topic in the master plan, but focused on traditional district energy approaches rather than presenting an integrated, renewables- and reliability-focused energy plan in keeping with the broader sustainability goals of the project. We needed to find another solution.

Enter Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Late in 2013, city staff reached out to RMI in hopes of finding a visionary, innovative approach to energy, one that satisfied future certified technology park tenant needs, insulated the area from power interruptions and price volatility, and allowed the broader Bloomington community to explore energy solutions that might one day serve other areas. The response was collaborative, innovative and hopeful.

After multiple exchanges, the RMI team mentioned eLab Accelerator, an opportunity to bring a team of certified technology park project stakeholders to the dizzyingly thin atmosphere of the Rocky Mountains to talk in detail about the future of energy before stumbling, gasping, to a chair to pass out.

A vision crystalizes

The combination of RMI's expert faculty, teams from across the country, a clear and interactive process, a lack of oxygen and a whole lot of LEGO bricks was magic. Our team, made up of representatives from Duke Energy, the City of Bloomington and the Bloomington Redevelopment Commission, arrived with questions galore about technology. Could we make waste-to-energy work in a downtown setting? How much of the projected need could we satisfy with solar? How could we effectively interface with Duke's power grid?

We soon realized that technology was not the primary challenge. What mattered more was having clear goals, building support throughout the community and convincing key players that energy innovation is a vital tool in serving the larger economic development goals of the certified technology park project. Where before Accelerator we were simply trying to find ways to fill energy needs in the certified technology park with green and reliable power, we were now reframing energy innovation as an economic opportunity for the high-tech businesses we hope to cultivate and attract — a "sandbox," in the words of one RMI faculty member, that would allow real-world play in the rapidly changing energy field.

We came away, too, with a much deeper understanding of the circumstances traditional utilities face across the country. As more solar and wind resources come online, utilities face increasing challenges to accommodate them in a way that is fair to all. With solar and wind prices becoming more affordable, the barrier to a more sustainable energy future is becoming less about adoption of renewables — although that's still important — and more about strategic planning and integration. The Bloomington certified technology park is an opportunity to explore how we might "bundle" a diversity of energy resources — from energy efficiency to solar to waste-to-energy — in a way that reduces the burden on the utility grid at all times of day and regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Responding to this challenge will be an important key to community resilience and sustainable energy, and we want to have answers that will work in the Bloomington community and beyond.

Next steps

So what happens now?

Infrastructure planning for the certified technology park is moving full-steam ahead, and the energy component needs to be a part of that process from early on if we're to include it effectively. Our next steps will include developing a clearer vision for energy and the role it will play within the overall mission of economic development, then building a team of champions, internally and externally, around that vision. Continued coordination with Duke Energy will be critical because any identified solutions must work with its system. And we need to identify and work with technical experts to determine what options are feasible given our assets and our constraints.

But those are the nuts and bolts of moving forward. Stepping back into that rarefied Rocky Mountain air and considering the world from a mountain-top view, we aim to mobilize our culture of innovation and opportunity, and to transform the certified technology park into our local window into the future. The possibilities are dizzying.

This article originally appeared at RMI Outlet. Photo of Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Ind., via Wikipedia