“People are key: community building, earning trust… we’ve learned that you really have to devote the resources to understand the sociological aspects. Just understanding the tech and legal aspects isn’t enough, we need to understand the people behind the project.”—Dr. Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier
On Thursday, October 28, EcoBlock PI Dr. Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier gave a presentation at the C3DTI Symposium on the Digital Transformation of the Built Environment. Sascha described the Oakland EcoBlock’s progress to date and explained the working hypothesis guiding the project. The aim is to achieve economies of scale in implementing a zero-net project for tens of residences, rather than a single household. However, if one were to extend beyond the neighborhood scale, potential ‘dis-economies of scale’ are encountered. The EcoBlock model, therefore, is based on the idea that the “block level is the sweet spot for addressing water efficiency, energy efficiency, and overall sustainability and resilience.”
She underscored that “we are looking at retrofits here – if we were looking at new build it’s a different scenario but retrofittingis a key element in the strategy.” Importantly, the aim is to demonstrate through the pilot the potential for replicability or adaptability of this approach within other communities. As part of the transformation of the block’s energy system to lower carbon emissions, the current infrastructure for natural gas will be retired, and replaced by new electric systems. This energy approach will also improve indoor air quality for residents. A community microgrid will connect to new solar panels, with the goal of providing better energy resilience as the system can disconnect from the main grid during power disruptions. New appliances will be installed, and insulation upgraded, to improve both energy efficiency and comfort for residents. Other retrofits for the block will target water systems and also include access to shared community electric vehicles to lower emissions and increase access to transportation within the community.
The EcoBlock project is currently in Phase II, with build-out and installation of these systems about to begin. Implementation involves the need to adapt the design to the specific site, which raises new questions, such as where on the block will the battery be installed. Sascha said that as construction begins, we are learning to understand and respond to “hyper local issues.” For example, it “turns out that the real currency on the block,” she explained, “is parking spaces.”
In order to respond to these and other local issues, Sascha emphasized the importance of engaging with the community. What makes this challenging, she explained, is that “we are looking at a truly cooperative model in which actors at different scales have to develop trust in each other.” While the EcoBlock team is working to design governance and rules to protect participants, she underscored that when implementing these rules, it is critical to first establish trust between landlords and property owners, participants and the local electric company, and between residents of the block who will share resources. Developing trust at multiple levels is particularly important as the goal of the project is to leave it “in the hands of the community to manage”—a truly locally-governed clean energy community.
According to Sascha, “people are key” in a project of this type, and it is important to develop the resources needed to understand the underlying community dynamics. Only having a grasp of the technical and legal elements is not enough. “There is so much texture and so many layers of data in different human experiences and priorities – it’s a kind of information that isn’t amenable to some of the processes we as engineers are used to. [We] need to work with social scientists to learn how we can gain trust.” To aid in this goal, EcoBlock has a dedicated community liaison who aims to know everyone on the block and help in the building of sustainable relationships. This role has become vital to the success of the project.
Sascha also underscored the importance of the Oakland EcoBlock as setting a precedent for future EcoBlocks—and the belief that after the first one has been built, it will pave the way for future projects, but adapted to diverse contexts. Ultimately, she explained, a critical outcome of the project is the development of a guidebook to describe “choices that were made, and why they were made, so we could have a model that can be adapted to different climates, social contexts, or regulatory frameworks.”
Sascha concluded by reiterating the importance of collecting data to inform project aims—but with a critical focus and sensitivity to the human element. To this end, the project takes a multi-disciplinary approach and collects candid feedback from participants through survey instruments on such issues as individual heating and cooling comfort preferences, in addition to household and block-level data on energy usage. Finally, she highlighted the possibility of future federal investment for energy retrofits, including electric vehicles and solar energy systems, and therefore the importance of collecting robust data on community needs and preferences.