EcoDistricts' four energy challenges

Steve Clem, Skanska USA

Steve Clem is vice president of preconstruction in the Beaverton office of Skanska USA Building and specializes in sustainable building. He can be reached at 503-207-2594 or

Buoyed by recent high-profile successes abroad, the district energy or EcoDistrict concept – a neighborhood-scale system that can provide water, power, waste and transportation solutions more effectively than traditional systems – continues to gain momentum in the United States.

Not surprisingly, Portland is trying to maintain its thought-leader position by developing plans for districts that span the spectrum from residential (Lents) to hospitality (Lloyd District).

The Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute, the Portland Development Commission and the City of Portland are all trying to implement the concept, but despite bold steps, such as the hiring of a manager for the Lloyd District, they have many challenges still ahead. For utilities and ratepayers who are accustomed to exchanging fees for services, district energy creates a new paradigm for the monthly bill.

In order for the district energy concept to grab hold, it obviously has to be a better value than the current system. The catch is that determining value isn’t as easy, for example, as “comparing the cost of insurance online.” Not only could cost evaluation involve a three-part calculation of initial construction, maintenance and replacement costs, each owner’s timeline for those costs would be different.

The consortium of public and private partners that crafts a plan will have to address four issues: reliability, ownership, timing and public policy.


Traditional building-based energy plant systems require maintenance to run optimally, and they occasionally break down completely. Although incidents are painful for that building, they are isolated to just that building and its systems. As a building owner, you have the risk and responsibility that comes with independence.

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