One California Community's Power Switch

Lancaster's effort to build a seamless, integrated energy infrastructure points the way to long-term robustness and sustainability.

Back in the late 1990s, Steve Jobs' vision for Apple was to create a computing ecosystem that delivered an easy-to-navigate and seamless user experience, an alternative to the Windows world's disjointed hardware-software infrastructure. Apple's "Think Different" campaign capitalized on the strength of Apple's integrated approach and launched the company into the success it experiences today.

Much as Apple's approach changed the world of computing, thinking differently about infrastructure holds considerable promise for innovative civic leaders looking for ways to improve their communities' long-term economic robustness and livability. In its approach to its energy infrastructure, one California city is laying a path away from the dysfunctional 20th-century development processes that were put in place to keep costs low at the expense of long-term value and functionality, process that are still too often the norm for many cities.

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Led by Mayor R. Rex Parris, the city of Lancaster is forging a new, integrated infrastructure framework around a net-zero energy use goal, aiming to generate at least as much energy as it consumes. As related in a recent FutureStructure article
, the city has engaged in multiple initiatives aligned to its sunny location in the California desert.

The first project was to convert City Hall to solar energy, which cut the building's power costs in half. This expanded to revising land-use policies and zoning codes, while providing a streamlined inspection process, to encourage solar-energy generation across the community. The city also created a power authority enabling it to enter into partnerships with local school districts to install solar energy producing shade structures; projected electricity cost savings from that effort alone are an estimated $325,000 a year.

Most recently, the city launched its own power utility to procure electricity for its residents. Lancaster Choice Energy was created under a state policy known as "community choice aggregation," which allows localities to aggregate individual customers' buying power to secure alternative-energy supply contracts. In addition to giving residents and business choices in their sources of electricity, Lancaster Choice Energy provides a new revenue stream for the city.

With an expectation that the sun will still be shining brightly in scores of decades to come at the edge of the Mojave Desert, and with the costs of solar equipment continuing to drop, Lancaster is clearly making smart investments. But by creating a comprehensive and seamless approach to one important aspect of its infrastructure, the city also is investing it its long-term economic health.

That long-term view is critical for communities. "If we are to remain competitive on a global scale, " says Bill Bertera, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, "it will be because our infrastructure -- at all levels -- makes that possible. The same is true for local communities in their quest for jobs and expanded tax bases."

Too much of our spending on infrastructure, Bertera says, is for "short-term salves" that "ward off immediate challenges but which do little to address long-term systemic weaknesses." In choosing how we spend scarce public funds, he adds, "we have frequently made bad decisions."

To help communities make better decisions, the institute has created Envision, a sustainable infrastructure rating system to evaluate the community, environmental and economic benefits of all types and sizes of infrastructure projects. "Sustainability," Bertera says, "is not about lasting long, it is about building projects that stand the test of time in terms of their lasting credibility and viability in changing circumstances."

Much like Steve Jobs' vision for an infrastructure-driven transformation of Apple, an opportunity exists for government leaders to envision a new physical infrastructure development strategy. However expressed and locally implemented, this strategy will require that we not only "think different" but also "think right" and "think long."

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic