Here’s a neat idea from Portland: Sunnyside Neighborhood Energy. It’s a district thermal-energy plan being shopped around by some folks who think they’ve solved several problems at once.

The problem? The neighborhood’s old elementary school with oil-fueled boilers from 1917. Also, that climate thing that Al Gore keeps going on about. Plus, low income families often struggle to pay their utility bills.

The solution?

SunNE, would be centered at Sunnyside Environmental School, where a central plant would replace the school’s 1917 oil-burning boiler with a solar-powered geothermal heat pump. The plant would then connect to a network of underground pipes circulating through the surrounding 38 blocks. The system wouldn’t supply electricity to the neighborhood but would supplant the electricity and natural gas used to power hot water heaters and air conditioners.

Okay, I’m in love.

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  • As you may know, I looooveheat pumps, especially those of the ground source variety. In a residential setting, a small electric motor comparable to the one in your fridge can extract enough heat from underground beneath your yard to provide you with unlimited carbon-free heating and cooling. All you pay for is the installation, a little periodic upkeep (like you would for a furnace anyway), and the power to run the motor. That’s seriously awesome. If you run the motor with solar then you’re really cooking.

    SunNE is taking that basic idea and multiplying it. By installing a network of pipes they can essentially put everyone in the neighborhood on the same carbon-free grid. It’s not that SunNE can magically make everything better, it’s just that…

    Well actually, it really can make a bunch of important stuff better.

    In any case, it’s a great example of a locally-scaled idea that can yield benefits both now and in the future. This is exactly the kind of thing that a smart economic stimulus package would target. It would create green jobs now—designing the system and performing the installation—and it would make energy more affordable for the neighborhood while doing a reasonable bit to reduce climate emissions. For an estimated price tag of between $7 and $9 million, I’d say it’s a bargain.

    There’s plenty more information on the City of Portland’s website here. You’ll also find a fair treatment of the problems, which are mainly related to the upfront costs and the disruption of installing the system. Then you should also check out SunNE’s wikispaces page for all the rest of the details.

    If you want to help get the project off the ground, you can check out their Ideablob. (And here’s a nice article in the Oregonian too.) Even better, executive director John Sorenson tells me that Northwest Neighborhood Energy is hosting a dance and fundraiser on January 31 from 7 to 10 p.m. You’ll even have a chance to check out the 90-year-old boilers while you’re at it.

    Hat tip to Cy Berryman at Northwest Energy Coalition for clueing me in to this project.