a suburban neighborhood view from the sky

Event Recap: ‘Getting to Zero: Trends in the Built Environment’

Eunice Chung

On Friday, March 11, the Oakland EcoBlock team participated in a panel discussion at the 2022 Diversity in Tech Symposium (formerly the Women in Tech Symposium). Co-organized by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute and the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, this year’s event focused on the theme, “Advancing Climate Resilience,” highlighting the latest innovations in clean energy, water conservation, food systems, and more.  

Titled “Getting to Zero: Trends in the Built Environment,” the panel was moderated by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Mary Ann Piette, who led a dynamic conversation on accelerating building decarbonization through the lenses of business, policy, and research.  

The panelists discuss the challenges and opportunities of building decarbonization.
Credit: EDGE in Tech/CITRIS and the Banatao Institute

A Scalable Model for Urban Decarbonization 

EcoBlock Principal Investigator (PI) and California Institute of Energy and Environment (CIEE) Electric Grid Research Director Dr. Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier kicked off the discussion with an overview of the Oakland EcoBlock. Sascha underscored the central hypothesis of the project, which posits the neighborhood block as the most cost-effective scale for implementing zero carbon systems. A replicable urban unit, the block provides opportunities to achieve load diversity, share energy, and integrate economies of scale in the design of efficiency-driven retrofits and electrical upgrades.   

Given the total energy consumption of residential and commercial buildings in the U.S., Sascha argued that conducting collective retrofits can efficiently, effectively, and equitably address climate change. She noted that energy efficiency, electrification, and local renewable energy use should be key priorities for reaching net zero emissions at the individual home level. Resilience would be achieved at the community scale by adding battery storage, aggregating power islands, and leveraging creative financing mechanisms to make solar plus storage affordable for underserved neighborhoods.  

However, deploying a prototype like the Oakland EcoBlock has its challenges. The EcoBlock team has faced diverse technical, financial, and regulatory hurdles as they work with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to produce an islandable microgrid out of the utility’s existing electrical distribution infrastructure. From designing safe and reliable electrical protection systems to establishing procedural norms and standards for community governance, the EcoBlock project is part of a growing movement to electrify buildings and transition to a cleaner grid.

Schematic diagram from EcoBlock Phase 1
A conceptual drawing from Phase I of the EcoBlock project shows an integrated design at the individual home level.
Credit: The Oakland EcoBlock 
 

Policies for a Low-Carbon Future

The Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) is a group of utilities, industry professionals, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations that leverages policy and market research to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from buildings in California. According to Founder and Executive Director Panama Bartholomy, the BDC faces five major barriers in the shift towards clean energy:  

  • Lack of awareness: Public stakeholders, especially policymakers, are often unaware that buildings are a major contributor to global carbon emissions.
  • Undefined value propositions: Consumers should make choices that yield a high return on investment. Energy and climate policies need to reduce capital costs and protect people from operating costs.  
  • Stalled revenue growth: Building a sustainable business model will spur the profitable adoption and implementation of energy-efficient practices. 
  • Unclear messaging to manufacturing lines and supply chains: Consumers must clearly commit to decarbonization in order to shift market production towards clean energy technologies. 
  • Misaligned policies: While billions of dollars are being spent to electrify buildings, significant funding is being provided to build affordable housing that uses natural gas. Policy frameworks at all levels (local, state, national, international) should clearly reflect existing climate goals. 

Panama stressed the importance of incentivizing consumers to electrify, especially with appliances. He outlined opportunities for “nudging” people to retire their gas appliances early and fuel switch to electric models, as well as encouraging them to upgrade their electrical infrastructure. The BDC is currently working to phase out natural gas in new construction, electrify appliances, and implement sustainable market policies that support electrification.

A two-story, single-family home with a large, fully-charged battery on the left
The Switch is On is a BDC-led campaign that aims to electrify homes throughout California.
Credit: The Switch is On

Redefining Traditional Business Models

BlocPower is a New York-based startup that electrifies buildings in low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities. With core markets throughout the U.S., BlocPower leverages innovative climate technology to streamline the electrification process, from initial assessment and financing to installation and maintenance. Backed by institutional partners like Salesforce Ventures and the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, BlocPower integrates green building, modern software, and workforce innovation to conduct energy-efficient retrofits with zero upfront costs. 

Some of BlocPower’s main challenges include overcoming high barriers to entry within traditional financing services, building a robust network of skilled, pro-electrification contractors, and conducting effective public education and outreach. Project Operations Manager Maria Carrillo highlighted the company’s workforce development programs as a way to address these issues: by preparing participants for a career in green construction, BlocPower aims to invest in both community and clean energy.  

BlocPower Founder and CEO Donnel Baird describes the company’s workforce development and training programs. 
Credit: PBSNewsHour

Looking Ahead

To conclude, each panelist shared what inspires them most about their work. Sascha spoke to the unity that emerges through teamwork, noting the importance of coordinated, collective action across local, regional, and global scales to address climate change.  Panama expressed hope in the societal shift towards electrification, citing gas bans in California and New York, as well as the European Union’s plan to move away from Russian fuel, as signs of progress. Finally, Maria recognized the challenges of decarbonization but remained optimistic about its potential to impact communities at scale. 

The Diversity in Tech Symposium is part of the EDGE in Tech Initiative (formerly Women in Tech Initiative) at the University of California. Now in its sixth year, the annual event aims to highlight the experiences of women and other underrepresented communities in technology. Presentations from the symposium are now available on the CITRIS YouTube channel.

Cover image credit: Pexels 

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