Scoop of earth mover and heaps of construction material in front of destroyed old industrial building.

Driving Industrial Revitalization with Net-Zero Energy

City leaders around the world are looking to rejuvenate their urban cores, boost quality of life for all residents, and improve resiliency. Revitalizing old industrial sites with net-zero energy (NZE) projects can help to advance these goals—while also advancing carbon emissions reductions citywide.

Cities like Pittsburgh, PA; Syracuse, NY; Detroit, MI; and St. Paul, MN, housed major manufacturing plants that supported the auto, steel, and other industries. They provided jobs, economic vitality, and a sense of identity for their communities. Old industrial sites are often overlooked as opportunities for economic development and revitalization, but their rich histories and prime locations position them to once again serve the communities that have surrounded them since American industry’s 20th-century peak.

Designing these sites to achieve net-zero energy offers an exciting opportunity to celebrate the history of these sites as vestiges of old American industry, while making both meaningful and symbolic progress toward the new clean energy economy. And, there are a growing number of examples that show city leaders, developers, and community groups are looking to harness the NZE opportunity.

The Opportunity Left by 20th-Century Industry

Industrial sites offer particular development advantages beyond the symbolism. They typically have beneficial access to major city centers, proximity to residential areas (and jobs), a relatively low cost of land, and sometimes desirable waterfront access due to trade on popular waterways throughout the 20th century. When thoughtfully developed, these communities maintain some of the historic elements of the original sites (like Hazelwood Green’s development of the mill building of the former steel site), and offer low-carbon development at or below market rates for future developers and building owners and lower energy costs for tenants. Postindustrial NZE revitalization projects have been attracting a variety of tenants, including large technology companies, research facilities, new industry, and a wide array of commercial and residential developers.

Designing to NZE also can advantage residents of these developments, who benefit from healthy, walkable communities, low or reduced energy bills, and improved air quality. Plus, NZE redevelopment can open up new funding sources, like property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing or grant funding and awards for advanced energy projects and communities that would be unavailable with business-as-usual design and construction.

When Bigger IS Better

Pursuing NZE new construction at the scale of a larger industrial site—what Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) considers a “district scale site—offers additional benefits such as bulk procurement, financing, mobility-oriented development, common use areas, and district heating and cooling systems, which can further reduce construction costs and increase building energy efficiency. Designing from a clean slate with the intent of achieving net-zero energy also allows planners and architects to design an urban form that can support net-zero energy at low or no cost by optimizing for access to daylight to offset artificial lighting; natural ventilation to offset heating, cooling, and ventilation loads; and rooftop sunlight to enhance the benefit of solar photovoltaic panels. Achieving net-zero energy overall can offer the community a housing stock that is healthy and energy efficient, has low ongoing costs and, if designed thoughtfully, can be constructed at market rates.

Examples of NZE Revitalization Projects

Leading examples of successful NZE revitalization projects at various stages of planning or completion shed light on this emerging trend.

Ford Site (St. Paul, MN)

The 135-acre site of the Ford Motor Company’s Twin Cities plant located along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, is currently undergoing a revitalization effort led by the City of St. Paul with close community collaboration. Ford’s decision to shut down the plant—which was in operation for more than 80 years—in 2011 left the City with a unique opportunity to set the stage for a sustainable community at the site.

Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul sees a sustainable and equitable future for the site. “St. Paul has undergone dramatic physical changes over the past 12 years, none more promising than the Ford Site,” he says. “In the years since Ford announced they would close the plant, we have worked to develop a progressive vision of one of the most sustainable and equitable communities in the country.”

The mixed-use site boasts net-zero energy design, and is part of the US Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Districts Accelerator program—highlighting the importance of collaboration and leveraging technical support to ensure its NZE goal is achieved. The project also prioritizes at least 20 percent affordable housing, and dedicates 21 percent of space to parks and open space to enhance walkability and access to nature.

National Western Center (Denver, CO)

The National Western Center in Denver, Colorado, is a 250-acre redevelopment that aims to support Denver’s global standing as a world-class hub for agriculture and innovation.

The revitalization effort looks to enhance the campus to become a destination that brings diverse programming in water, health, environment, and energy. The development team is drawing on a partnership among the City and County of Denver, Colorado State University, the Western Stock Show Association, and two museums: the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and History Colorado.

The site boasts net-zero energy goals as supported by the US Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Districts Accelerator, and is colocated with the Sun Valley EcoDistrict, another member of DOE’s accelerator that is focused on revitalizing the adjacent low-density, low-income community.

Hazelwood Green (Pittsburgh, PA)

Hazelwood Green is a mixed-use, 180-acre redevelopment at the site of former steel mill on the Monongahela River. This site employed thousands before the decline of the US steel industry, but today it is envisioned to become a world-class model for sustainable development, with a site-wide goal of net positive energy. It is Pittsburgh’s last urban brownfield and largest remaining riverfront tract, so the stakes are high for this neighborhood to reestablish Pittsburgh as a hub of industrial innovation.

To meet the ambitious NZE goals and other related community improvement goals such as improved health, air quality, and walkability, the team behind Hazelwood Green has instituted an innovative and replicable model demonstrating not only the technical viability of net-zero energy development but also that it can be achieved at no first-cost premium to developers, owners, or tenants thanks to a groundbreaking new business model for district-scale NZE developed by RMI for the community.

In addition to these examples, other notable projects include:

  • The Erie County Industrial Development Agency in Buffalo, NY, which is moving forward with plans to build an NZE manufacturing facility on the former Bethlehem Steel site; and
  • The South Chicago Lakeside redevelopment, which hopes to revitalize the vacant 600-acre South Work Steel Mill site and transform the brownfield property into a sustainable mixed-use community.
Shaping Local Opportunities

City leaders, planning officials, and developers have an unprecedented opportunity to drive economic vitality, social equity, and progress toward low-carbon goals by redeveloping industrial sites of the past into thriving, net-zero energy communities. City leaders and planning officials can draw inspiration from the amazing work that has been performed and shared publicly. Several members of the DOE’s Zero Energy Districts Accelerator have shared their master plans and other helpful documentation publicly, including the Denver and St. Paul projects listed above. Real estate developers can utilize these resources and the integrated business model that RMI developed for net-zero energy districts, and track the progress of these net-zero energy redevelopment projects as they share success stories and lessons learned throughout implementation.

Industry leaders and others interested in learning more are invited to draw inspiration from leading-edge district energy projects during the Zeroing in on Districts and Scale on ZE Projects workshop at the 2018 Getting to Zero National Forum (April 17–19 in Pittsburgh, PA). The workshop will spotlight innovative projects that leverage the value of a larger development to drive more effective and holistic solutions. RMI is eager to cohost this event with partners New Buildings Institute, the Department of Energy, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.