Illustration by Maren Slobody

You can do a lot with $4.5 million. That’s a little over 180 Toyota Priuses, or on average, 5000 years of electricity for one California household.

It’s also the amount the National Science Foundation gave to UC Santa Cruz and affiliated universities for research in community scale renewable energy. During the grant’s five-year distribution period, the city of Santa Cruz will become an international testing ground for localized renewable energy plants.

According to the UCSC faculty website for Ronnie Lipschutz, a co-principal investigator for the project, the money will be distributed between 2012–17. During this time, it will be used to fund research in sustainable engineering as well as an educational curriculum. Both will be conducted between four universities: UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, Aalborg University in Denmark, and the Technical University of Denmark.

Researchers are using the grant money to experiment with localized renewable energy sources, like horizontal wind turbines and solar panels.

“The idea is, can you [produce renewable energy plants] on a local scale, can you generate the electricity and heat you need locally and so you don’t lose the efficiency of having to transport it long distances,” said Michael Isaacson, UCSC professor of engineering and co-principal investigator for the research grant.

Most wind turbines and solar panels in the U.S. currently are in the desert where fewer people live, Isaacson said. Energy efficiency is lost when power companies transport the energy over long distances.

Localized energy plants eliminate this problem, but no one wants a wind turbine in their backyard, Isaacson said.

“There’s a social issue involved,” Isaacson said. “You’re basically building a power plant in the community. So the question is, what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable?”

Isaacson said this is a cultural issue. Partnering with Danish universities is advantageous because Danish culture is more compatible with localized renewable energy sources than the U.S.

“In Denmark, everyone thinks in terms of the common good, that’s in the culture there,” Isaacson said. “So they can do things like this fairly easily. We can’t necessarily do things like that because in the U.S. it’s all individual, everyone’s for themselves, more or less. That’s the culture here.”

With the NSF grant, researchers seek to establish localized energy plants in a way that is compatible with the surrounding culture.

“Technical and social changes go hand in hand,” said Ben Crow, a UCSC sociology professor involved with the research. “We don’t know really what the processes are that will make possible lower carbon energy emissions. So, a good way to start, trying to understand what’s acceptable, what spreads like wildfire and what doesn’t spread, is to experiment in a small community.”

In the city of Santa Cruz, researchers have started small with the Green Wharf Project, located on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

The Green Wharf Project, started in 2008, exploits wind, solar and hydro energy. However, the electricity generated by these sources currently supplies only one percent of the electricity needed.

“[The electricity generated by the Green Wharf Project] is basically being used to charge batteries for the tools that people use on the wharf or to charge the electric cars that go up and down for maintenance on the wharf,” Isaacson said.

The wharf supports over 2,000 businesses, Isaacson said, and although this is a step forward it still hasn’t had a serious effect on the surrounding community. Yet with the grant, Isaacson and his colleagues hope to convert the wharf to a 100 percent sustainable operation.

In addition to research, the grant will contribute to the Sustainable Engineering and Ecological Design (SEED) curriculum on campus.

The SEED program is a collaboration between UCSC engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists. It focuses on designing renewable energy systems that are also accepted by the surrounding community.

“The idea is to develop something that I’m calling the ‘sustainability district’ in the Village,” Lipschutz said.

This “sustainability district” will focus on the sustainable use of water, energy and food in the Village and on-campus residences.

“What we are interested in as well, which is sort of part of the grant, is people’s behaviors,” Lipschutz said. “The way in which they use energy, the way in which to develop sustainable microgrids in a community environment.”

The grant also funds an exchange program between the two California campuses and the two Danish campuses. Isaacson said he believes Americans can learn a lot from the Danes in terms of sustainability.

“Their green energy government actually has a plan to be free from fossil fuels in the next 20 years,” Isaacson said. “They’ll be solely on renewable energy by 2030, that’s the plan. Right now something like 25 percent of all their energy comes from renewables.”

Isaacson supports world collaboration in order to resolve the difficult problems associated with renewable energy.

“The difficult problems today are not problems that are going to be solved by one country,” Isaacson said. “The way these things are going to be solved is by bringing people together all over the world.”