Q1. What is the EcoBlock?
A1. The Oakland EcoBlock is a community-scale sustainability retrofit to demonstrate efficient block-scale energy and water systems. The research project is funded primarily by the California Energy Commission to show the benefits of using economies-of-scale to conduct energy and water efficiency retrofits in a neighborhood of houses to reduce carbon emissions and develop a standalone “microgrid” of electrical generation (solar electric rooftop panels) and storage (flywheel or batteries). The EcoBlock design includes advanced efficiency measures, a solar-powered microgrid, shared electric vehicles, and a new approach for coordinating these on the scale of a city block. The main idea is that by combining and standardizing technical components and by creating a cooperative with the right financing structure, investments like these can be made affordable for everyone.
Q2. Who are the members of the EcoBlock project team?
A2. The team is broad and deep. There are architects, engineers, contractors, union labor, and energy efficiency experts, legal experts in the real estate and energy sectors, research scientists from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, municipal employees and leaders, policy experts in real estate, economics, and workforce development, and most importantly local community members (both residents and community organizers). The Principal Investigator for Phase II is Prof. Sascha von Meier (Electrical Engineering, UC Berkeley).
Q3. What is the purpose of this project? What is the expected outcome?
A3. The benefits enjoyed by the participants include reduced utility bills and reduced carbon footprint (the goal is to eliminate the gas bill, reduce the water bill, and substantially reduce the electricity bill), improved comfort in one’s home by improving insulation and reducing leaks, updated appliances and fixtures, and lack of electrical interruption through the next power outage. The project goal is to explore a path towards rapidly reducing climate emissions from energy upgrade and reducing gas appliances in residential retrofits, and develop a resilient electric microgrid that can provide power during outages. The objective is to build a successful demonstration EcoBlock in the next four years (October 2019-May 2023), and create a blueprint for replicating EcoBlocks in Oakland and other cities around the world. This includes updating the City’s building code and zoning requirements to allow the kinds of comprehensive retrofits that are needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Q4. What is the scope of the project?
A4. The current scope of the project (this may change with more funding) covers:
1. Energy efficiency retrofits (floor and attic insulation, weather sealing (doors/windows), Heat Recovery Ventilator, exhaust fans replaced with ones with ECM (efficient) motors, gas-fueled space and water heating and clothes drying appliances replaced with efficient electrical equipment/appliances, smart thermostat, LED upgrades, ceiling fans).
2. Water efficiency retrofits: laundry-to-landscape greywater system, drought tolerant planting, water-efficient dishwasher and clothes washer replacement, water-efficient fixture replacement (toilets, lavatories, faucets)
3. Solar electric (electricity-generating) Photovoltaic (PV) panels for the roof, sized to meet 100% of electrical demand.
4. Neighborhood-shared energy storage using “flywheel” or battery storage. (Imagine a large spinning weight, located in the ground, that can absorb and produce energy, and is safer than conventional chemical battery storage.)
5. Shared Electrical Vehicle charging stations (up to six)
6. DC (direct current) “microgrid” across multiple residential buildings; each house has its own solar electric generation, and a shared DC infrastructure connects to the flywheel energy storage and the Electric Vehicle charging stations.
7. Legal, regulatory, and financial innovation to facilitate these and future projects.
Q5. When will the project begin and how long will it last?
A5. The project is expected to last four years, and began October 2019. The construction phase of the project is expected to last 4-6 months beginning in late 2021, which may increase traffic during some hours to this block and neighboring blocks. The schedule is approximately:
Year 1: Recruit participants, conduct water and energy review or audit of buildings, develop preliminary design.
Year 2: Develop construction design and obtain permits
Year 3: Conduct energy and water improvements, install microgrid and commission
Year 4: Performance evaluation, guidebook to develop other EcoBlocks.
Q6. How are the neighbors going to work together? Will this project require a new type of organization in the neighborhood?
A6. The research team will help the participants select and develop an appropriate governance vehicle, such as a Trust, Co-op, or HOA-like organization, such as a Green Retrofit Organization, to help member communicate and coordinate ongoing operation; the shared systems, such as storage, connections, control, solar panels, and EV charging, will be collectively owned by all participants. There will also be a method of collecting the necessary funds for continued operation, maintenance, and insurance after the project ends. The exact form of these organizations is still to be determined, with input from the block. One option is called a Community Facilities District (CFD), which collects funds through a special tax similar to a property tax.
Q7. If I volunteer to participate, what can I expect will happen in or on my house? on my block? What exactly does this entail?
A7. The first step is to allow a full energy and water efficiency audit of your home and release energy and water bills for evaluation. If your home is eligible and you agree, your home will undergo the retrofit and appliance upgrade as described in A4. The audit will note any hazardous conditions (e.g., asbestos, mold, dry rot) or existing non-code-conforming issues. You will receive a DC microgrid connection to power certain appliances, in addition to your unchanged PG&E service. The Co-op will share an energy storage system for the microgrid, distributed EV chargers, and several electric vehicles for shared use by Co-op members.
Q8. If I agree to participate and volunteer my house for this project, what are my responsibilities? If I decide I no longer want to participate at any time in the project period, what happens?
A8. There is a multi-step agreement process: the first step is to allow the audit and to release a year’s worth of energy and water use data, which will be anonymized to protect your privacy. Your participation is voluntary, and you need not proceed to the next step. If your house is found eligible, the second agreement describes the requirements, risks/benefits, and responsibilities in order to participate. Again, participation is voluntary, and you need not proceed. The third agreement is joining the Co-op organization, which will have rules that describe the method of determining and collecting fees to offset the cost of maintenance of the shared infrastructure mentioned above. The Co-op will have rules for leaving the Co-op. The homeowner will sign a contract with the contractor for work conducted on the house. And finally, the homeowner will agree to some form of continued financing for maintenance, such as a CFD.
Note that data from each participant (e.g., energy and water consumption) will be collected during the project for analysis only by the project team; CIEE and the project team will not publish or release your name, address or any other identifying information.
Benefits of the project include the eligible energy and water retrofits for your home, paid for by the project, and lower energy and water bills. You will retain your existing utility services, but in addition have access to local microgrid power, which is designed to remain available during PG&E outages.
Q9. What is a Community Facilities District (CFD)?
A9. A CFD is one legal option to ensure that the ongoing maintenance of the equipment will be covered after 2023. In this case, the participating owners would form a Community Facilities District, also known as a Mello-Roos District, and pay an annual special tax. We are working with one of California’s leading public finance firms to specify the terms of creating such a district for the first EcoBlock. For future EcoBlocks, CFDs would have to cover both the initial infrastructure financing and the ongoing costs, a much more substantial commitment. Since this pilot Oakland EcoBlock project has the benefit of CEC funding and multiple sources of cost share for the initial construction, the CFD would only have to cover ongoing operation and maintenance. For more information on CFDs see https://neighborly.com/
learn/what-is-a-community-facilities-district/ and https
Q10. Will participation require that illegal rental units be made legal if possible, or be vacated if they cannot be made legal?
A10. We are working on an answer to this question.
Q11. I am a renter: will the landlord raise the rent after this project? I am a homeowner: can I raise the rent after the upgrades are complete?
A11. The energy upgrades (for example, increased insulation and efficient appliances) and solar system are expected to substantially reduce the annual energy bill. (The bill won’t be zero: PG&E requires a minimum connection fee, approximately $10 per month). The design of the project is that the savings will exceed the annual fee (if a CFD is used, a special tax included in the property tax) needed to pay for the operation, maintenance, and insurance for the shared microgrid infrastructure. The City of Oakland allows for increase in rent to cover an increase in property tax (https://www.oaklandca.gov/resources/learn-more-about-allowable-rent-increases). This indicates that the landlord can increase the rent to cover the increase in property taxes, but the tenant should see reduced energy bills, so the net effect should be minimal.
Q12. How much of my time will participation consume?
A12. At a minimum, you would allow the team to conduct an initial walk-through of your house to determine which energy/water efficiency retrofits are applicable, you will spend time with a contractor discussing the options for your home, and would have contractors at your home working to install the items you select, including some required sensing and metering equipment. We anticipate some time needed for learning how to operate within this EcoBlock, and working with the team on post evaluation, including surveys or interview. The amount of time you invest in community meetings is up to you.
Q13. How are the appliances selected? What choices do I have? What if I want a different appliance than the one that is offered (e.g., gas range vs. electric induction stovetop)?
A13. Because this project is a research project and goods and services will be provided at no cost to the owner, the contracted goods and services will not always be selected based on competitive bid based on quality, price, and servicing. The research team will be transparent about the selection process and the reasons for the selection. The participant is under no obligation to receive all goods and services. You will not be required to take any appliance into your home that you don’t want, although in order to balance the microgrid, the research team may decide on a minimum number of appliances that must be accepted in order to participate. The project’s technology options have been selected to provide you with the best comfort level and minimal energy cost, so if you opt out of receiving certain items, you should expect to lose some of the benefits.
Q14. How can I/my house qualify to participate?
A14. Your house will qualify to participate if it is located within the boundary of the EcoBlock that is ultimately selected for the project, it meets the requirements of the audit, and while the project has sufficient funds. Your expression of interest in participation is an important factor in the selection of the block.
Q15. What if I only want some of the technologies and not everything, or if some technologies won’t work with my property (e.g., space too small for heat pump replacement)–can I still participate?
A15. You will not be required to accept all efficiency measures and appliances in order to participate in the EcoBlock. However, there may be a minimum selection of components that makes it technically reasonable and worthwhile. The project team will be available to discuss this with you.
Q16. I want to renovate my home in parallel with the energy efficient strategies and technology installation (e.g., kitchen/bathroom renovation, window replacement). How can I work with the contractor to achieve this?
A16. The contractor will be available to discuss with you how best to coordinate the work on your home that’s within scope of the funded project, and additional work that you may choose to have done at the same time and pay for yourself.
Q17. What happens if my property is damaged during installation? during operation of the microgrid?
A17. All installation work will be carried out by licensed and bonded contractors. The project budget, as well as the operation and maintenance fees or tax after project end, include liability insurance. The Co-op membership agreement will include specific language about the types of claims that would be covered, much like your regular homeowner’s insurance policy. The project team will be able to assist you in reviewing your existing homeowner’s insurance to make sure there are no surprises in your coverage.
Q18. What changes will I have to make to accomodate these technologies? If the laundry water is used to water my landscape, won’t I have to change laundry detergent, and be careful what I am washing (e.g., microfibers, clothes with oil, grease from bike chain, cleansers)?
A18. The project team will provide you with specific recommendations.
Q19. I already have some of these technologies, for example, solar electric panels, a new washing machine, new water heater. Can I be compensated for these expenses if I made these purchases in the last year?
A19. The project cannot compensate you for any past investments made in your home.
Q20. What happens if the construction team discovers aspects of my house that are non-compliant?
A20. We are working on an answer to this question. The guiding philosophy is that nobody should fear the consequences of having their home audited, but we also want to help ensure everyone’s safety.
Financial and legal issues
Q21. Will I have to pay for anything? Will I be paid to volunteer my house for this project?
A21. As a homeowner, you will receive EcoBlock retrofits as a gift. You will not be responsible for the cost of equipment, installation, or service during the project period. However, you will begin to make an annual payment, such as a CFD special tax, for the purpose of guaranteeing the ongoing maintenance of the equipment after CEC project ends in 2023. You will not receive compensation for any time you spend, or for any risk you take by participating in the project.
Q22. How will this affect my energy bill? Is there guaranteed savings?
A22. While researchers have analyzed the projected savings from various EcoBlock measures and considered them favorable, we cannot know future electricity, gas, and water rates. We also cannot know exactly how your utility usage may change over time. Therefore, it is impossible to guarantee a specific amount of savings. The expectation is that your utility savings should be substantially greater than the annual payment (e.g. CFD special tax) you are assessed. The project team will work with the neighborhood to determine the maximum payment that could be assessed. This maximum may not be charged in any given year, but will be disclosed, for example, to title companies or future buyers of your home. Note that the intention of the project is to make EcoBlocks affordable even without a subsidy like the $5 million spent by the CEC on your block. Therefore, ideally, your utility savings should be large enough to pay for the entire capital investment of retrofitting the block — not just the operation and maintenance. Participating in the EcoBlock will not interrupt the relationship with the utility or require owners/residents to pay energy bills to any other parties.
Q23. How will this project affect the property value of my house?
A23. We would like to assume that improved insulation and new appliances will increase the property value of your house, but we cannot know the future of real estate markets in general, or specific property values.
Q24. How will this project affect my property taxes?
A24. The impact of the energy and water improvements to each home’s tax assessment is expected to be minimal. Remodeling and repair that are part of normal maintenance or cosmetic are not considered assessable, neither is replacing fixtures and appliances; solar panel installations are excluded from reassessment (https://www.hjta.org/news-events/taxing-times-online-winter-2018-2019/your-questions-answered-if-i-remodel-my-home-will-my-property-taxes-go-up/).
The shared infrastructure will require funds for maintenance and insurance after the system is installed, tested and commissioned, and after the project is completed in 2023. The research team has identified a Communities Facilities District (CFD) as a trusted secure means of assessing all the participating neighbors an annual fee, based on the ability to pay and amount of shared resources at each property, over the lifetime of the microgrid (e.g., 30 years). As a property tax line item or lien, residents pay through their taxes, similar to assessment district financing. The project expects savings from reduced energy and water bills of each participating household as $500-1000+/year; this is expected to outweigh the annual fee.
Q25. What happens when I sell my home–what do I tell the next owner about these technologies, especially the shared infrastructure like the battery or flywheel storage, any easements, and the required fee or tax that goes with the property? May I take the efficient appliances with me if I move?
A25. The equipment and shared infrastructure would be part of your property title just like other improvements, easements, or memberships in homeowner’s associations. If the CFD is the vehicle for supporting the maintenance fee of the microgrid, the homeowner would need to disclose this tax lien at time of resale. The microgrid and storage rely on energy efficiency of all the homes; the energy efficient and water efficient appliances are intended to remain with the house. The efficient appliances are a gift to the homeowner, but are crucial to the balance and operation of the shared solar and storage system. It is likely that the Co-op agreement will include a stipulation that if an appliance is removed, it will be replaced with one of equivalent efficiency.
Q26. Will this project require easements on my property, for the electrical connection to the battery or flywheel or for an EV charger or anything else?
A26. In general, the team anticipates working within the Right-of-Way (e.g., sidewalk space) for the shared infrastructure. But certain conditions may require easements. We are working on a more complete answer to this question.
Q27. I am a renter. Could I be kicked out? How are my rights as a renter protected?
A27. Entering the EcoBlock will have no direct effect on your rights as a renter or your relationship with your landlord. It is possible that your landlord may pass some costs through to you in rent, but the goal of the project is for savings to exceed costs. Your rights as a renter will continue to be protected under the existing applicable laws and ordinances. Note that the City of Oakland intends to make this model of urban development attractive and sustainable for all, owners and renters alike.
Q28. Can I claim the federal tax credit for the solar electric panels installed on my roof?
A28. The project team are not tax advisors. Having said that, it is our understanding that since individual property owners will not pay the costs of purchasing or installing the panels in the pilot project, they will not be able to claim any tax credits. Solar tax credits are only available to the party that makes the expenditure for the panels and installation.
Q29. What happens after the four year project is over? Who is responsible for maintaining what is on my house? the shared components? Who will pay for future repairs?
A29. The Co-op will be responsible for the shared components, using funds collected through either a CFD special tax or other means. The Co-op will carry liability insurance for any unforeseen events (for example, fire or earthquake damage). The participants will maintain their connection to PG&E, thus if the participants decide to abandon the microgrid for any reason in the future, they can continue to use the PG&E power.
Q30. What is a “microgrid”?
A30. An electric microgrid is a miniature electrical utility system that includes a micro power plant (in this case solar electric PV panels on rooftops of houses), a means of storing this electrical energy (e.g. battery or flywheel storage), electrical cables and a control system to distribute and monitor the energy, and appliances that consume this energy, such as residential space heating and cooling, water heating, clothes washers/dryers and dishwashers. If the regular utility power is disrupted or there is a power outage, the microgrid can supply power to the homes that are connected.
Q31. What is “flywheel” energy storage? Why is this considered compared to a battery at each house?
A31. Flywheel Energy Storage works by spinning a rotor or flywheel to a high speed and maintaining the energy in the system as rotational energy. Energy can be stored or extracted from the system by accelerating or reducing the rotational speed. Flywheels have been used in automobiles since the 1950s, and are used in toys, rollercoasters, and more recently as a safer means to store electricity than conventional chemical battery storage.
The project team believes that flywheels are a promising alternative to batteries at the scale of a block, for several reasons: there are no hazardous materials or rare elements used in production; steel flywheels are 100% recyclable and have a 30-year design life; and maintenance should be minimal. Most important, power to and from flywheels can be cycled at will, without degradation, at round-trip efficiencies of 88% or more. We are working with local company Amber Kinetics on the possibility of installing up to three of their 40 kW flywheels in a concrete vault in the ground.
Q32. How can I learn more about these technologies (e.g., photovoltaics, fly wheel storage, heat pump water heaters and space heaters, insulation and sealing, EV charging, appliances….)
A32. We are working on updating this website with a special section to provide more detailed technical information and links to the relevant technologies.
Q33. Can I trust these new technologies? What is the history/background? What warranties are available?
A33. While some of the technologies (such as DC microgrids and flywheel energy storage) are relatively new and have never been combined in a setting quite like this, they are all technically proven and have impeccable safety records. The project will use only equipment that comes with manufacturer’s warranties and that meets all applicable safety standards.
Q34. Will the project result in fewer available parking spaces?
A34. The project anticipates a small number (likely up to 6, depending on interest level among block residents) of shared electric vehicles with reserved parking spaces along the block. However, some block residents may find it no longer necessary to own and park another car, which would offset the impact on overall parking availability.
Q35. What if we decide we don’t want the EVs? Or if we, as block, only want two? Are there parts of the block-level project (not individual upgrades) that are up for community input/vote?
A35. The number of EVs to include will be determined after conferring with block residents about their needs and wants, to ensure that they are well utilized and not occupying parking spaces without offering good utility for block residents.
Q36. Will the EVs only be accessible to the existing block residents? Would there be a consideration to allow users from adjacent streets/blocks to use them?
A36. The thought is to initially limit usage to block residents to make sure they have good access, but if residents are accepting of allowing others in nearby areas, and that is helpful to get better utilization of the vehicles, then this is something we would periodically revisit.
Q37. How does a heatpump heat my house compared to my current furnace?
A37. Some owners report that it takes slightly longer to heat your house with a heat pump compared to a gas-fired furnace. On the plus side, heat pumps are much more efficient, and you will have heat even during a PG&E outage.
Q38. I am nervous about a research project that installs a lot of new technologies in other people’s homes–have you tested these on yourselves first?
A38. Actually, many of the university researchers and project partners have firsthand experience with these technologies, and are excited to talk about our experiences!
Regarding Opportunity Notice
Q39. How do I figure out how much energy I use in a year?
A39. If PG&E is your electrical and gas utility, you can go to PG&E My Energy. If you do not have an account yet, you can create one (you’ll need your account number, which you can find on a previous bill). Once you sign in, you should see a tab on the left under Your Account called Bill and Payment History. You can see your past bills and use them to figure out how much you pay for energy in the last year. You can also take a look at the Energy Usage tab on the right.
Q40. What if we have a non-participant in the middle of our otherwise contiguous street/block. Is that a deal breaker?
A40. If there is one parcel (in the middle of an otherwise contiguous set of parcels on a street) that does not wish to participate, it is not a deal breaker only if the non-participant does not object to the project. We should be able to bypass one parcel, but if the homeowner vehemently objects to the project, that might raise problems for the project.