On Monday, November 8, the Oakland EcoBlock team participated in a panel discussion at the 2021 Virtual Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) Conference. The event, titled “The Future is Local: Exploring the Future of Energy Through Grassroots Advanced Energy Communities,” centered on the development of two Advanced Energy Communities (AECs)—the Oakland EcoBlock and Bassett Avocado Heights Advanced Energy Community (BAAEC)—and highlighted each project’s approach to accelerating the transition to community-scale clean energy.
What are Advanced Energy Communities (AECs)?
On May 18, 2018, the California Energy Commission (CEC) released a solicitation for their first ever design-build competition, challenging multi-disciplinary project teams to prototype a replicable model for community-scale decarbonization. With up to $30 million in Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) grant funding, the initiative called for the accelerated deployment of Advanced Energy Communities (AECs), electrically contiguous areas that are “affordable, equitable, emissions-free and resilient to climate change impacts and extreme weather events.”
The Phase I solicitation called on teams to develop a conceptual design framework for the pilot communities. Four of the 13 original projects received Phase II funding to pursue construction and are currently in various stages of development.
As Phase II-funded EPIC grant recipients, the Oakland EcoBlock and BAAEC teams sat down to discuss their respective missions, business and financial models, and strategies for community engagement and outreach.
Led by The Energy Coalition, BAAEC is situated in the Los Angeles County unincorporated neighborhoods of Bassett and Avocado Heights. The project covers six census tracts, or roughly 4.7 square miles of land, and serves a population of about 28,000—84 percent of whom are of Hispanic background with an annual median household income of $60,000. The neighborhoods are bordered by three freeways, a battery recycling center, and landfill—all of which contribute to significant pollution in the area—and are projected to experience more than 40 additional extreme heat days per year by 2050.
The BAAEC is composed of several elements, including:
- A community solar and battery storage system
- A campus microgrid resilience hub to provide backup power during prolonged power outages, emergencies, and extreme heat days
- A Blockchain-based prosumer network of 50 single-family “Advanced Homes” furnished with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, heat pump water heaters, battery storage, and a smart home energy monitoring app
- Zero-emission electric vehicle (EV) vanpooling services and charging infrastructure
- A smart pollution sensor network that monitors and records air quality data in real-time
Genaro Bugarin, the Director of Energy Program Operations at The Energy Coalition, defined community broadly as an entity not necessarily constrained by geographic and/or social bounds, but rather as a decentralized electrical network. While the team acknowledged the use of federal census tracts to identify disadvantaged communities, the goal of the project is to find an optimal “sweet spot” in which the energy generated by a central microgrid meets—or even exceeds—the costs of operation and maintenance.
On the other hand, the EcoBlock team identified the neighborhood block as the most cost-effective scale to implement zero-carbon energy, deep water conservation, and resilient urban systems. Project Manager Therese Peffer emphasized the uniqueness of EcoBlock as an urban retrofit of existing buildings (i.e., single-family, multi-family, and commercial properties) that leverages innovative financial and legal structures to enable the community to own the means of energy generation. Therese also outlined the core features of EcoBlock, which include individual in-home retrofits (e.g., installing water and energy-efficient appliances) and collective block-scale improvements (e.g., stormwater mitigation and landscaping, e-mobility and charging, and the distribution of shared microgrid assets).
Business & Finance
Following the project overviews, each team discussed their respective business and financial models. The BAAEC model aims to integrate the technical and social considerations of establishing a clean energy community. However, the project faced notable policy and financial challenges, including:
- Securing high-resolution energy consumption and community data
- Defining the role of public service agencies like investor-owned utilities (IOUs), Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), and local governments in the energy transition process
- Eliminating upfront or repayment obligations for lower-income residential customers
- Managing the out-of-pocket and ongoing costs of electric vehicle (EV) chargers for property owners
Despite these hurdles, the BAAEC team remains optimistic as they plan to continue tracking data (e.g., legislative initiatives; regulatory proceedings; climate, sustainability, and adaptation plans), establish industry partnerships, and prioritize community needs.
EcoBlock Senior Project Advisor Kate Ringness described how the team plans to finance the private, in-home and shared, block-level upgrades: whereas the capital costs for the Oakland EcoBlock are fully covered by California Energy Commission and donor funds, future models may need to seek alternative financing mechanisms to ensure long-term sustainability.
Kate discussed potential financing mechanisms for the EcoBlock, emphasizing the need to build robust infrastructure for community self-financing through low interest rates and transaction costs. She also described the “patchwork” of tariffs that govern different parts of the project, ranging from the Community Microgrid Enablement Tariff (CMET) that permits the implementation of community-scale, multi-customer microgrids to the Virtual Net Energy Metering (VNEM) tariff that governs individual, multi-meter properties (e.g., multi-family housing). Finally, Kate weighed in on the scalability of EcoBlock, listing standardized design and processes, flexible business models, and the proper valuation of grid services as some of the key ingredients to developing future EcoBlocks.
Community Engagement & Outreach
Lastly, each team described their respective strategies for community engagement and outreach. Meaghan Laverty, the Communications Director for The Energy Coalition, presented BAAEC’s efforts to promote community-facing material (e.g., a public website, an outreach guide, social media) and implement educational initiatives like their Youth Advocacy Program and Energy Leadership Academy. Meaghan mentioned that community buy-in is critical to the project’s success and highlighted the Community Advisory Committee as one way in which local stakeholders are engaged in project design and implementation.
The EcoBlock project leverages various strategies for community engagement. The project website serves as the primary channel for public outreach; other methods, including in-person block meetings, personal household visits and telephone calls, a monthly community newsletter, blog, and email digest, help expand the team’s scope of internal and external communication. A comprehensive guidebook is also being developed to document lessons learned from the project and serve as a model for future implementation throughout California.
EcoBlock Community Liaison Cathy Leonard championed the use of existing resources to invest in robust community engagement. An Oakland native, Cathy cited her local roots and extensive grassroots activism as potential factors in securing community buy-in. She stressed the value of engaging both project participants and non-participants in the design and implementation processes, underscoring the need for clear, consistent, and comprehensive communication with the entire neighborhood. She also recognized that strong public and political support, especially from the City of Oakland, is integral to advancing Phase II of the project.
Cathy further emphasized the need to establish trust with, and within, the target community. Following a difficult site selection process during Phase I, the EcoBlock team had to quickly pivot and develop a new strategy for choosing a pilot block. By prompting blocks to self-select, the research team was able to identify a candidate that not only had a history of positive community interaction but was representative of the larger City of Oakland: a melting pot of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities inhabiting a wide range of building typologies.
Both the BAAEC and EcoBlock teams acknowledged the challenges of translating conceptual ideas into built reality, noting knowledge gaps, need for relationship-building, and the COVID-19 pandemic as the greatest barriers to launching. However, they also recognized the rich, and often unexpected, opportunities that arise through iterative testing, as each team navigates the unique contextual conditions that shape their project’s realization.
Overall, the panel discussion provided an insightful look into two different AEC models, showcasing the limits and potentials of each. While the projects are designed to ensure replicability, it is important to note that they are situated within larger social, political, and economic frameworks, grappling with the varied forces that shape California’s energy landscape.
Credit: Capital & Main (cover image)