Event recap: ‘The Oakland EcoBlock – A Novel Approach to Building Resilient Communities

Miriam Aczel

On April 28, I attended an informative presentation on the Oakland Ecoblock by Dr. Sascha von Meier, Director of California Institute for Energy & the Environment (CIEE)’s Electric Grid program and EcoBlock co-PI. The online talk was part of UC Berkeley’s Science at Cal lecture series, which showcases the university’s cutting-edge STEM research through free public events. 

Sascha began by quoting Dr. John Holdren, former senior advisor to President Obama for science and technology, on the need to meet climate change challenges by ”avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable.” She then described the three main goals of Oakland’s EcoBlock project—a collaborative pilot project housed at Berkeley’s CIEE: to promote resilience defined as the ability to manage crises within the community; to promote equitable access to clean and reliable energy; and to manage the potential impacts of current and future climate change and associated extreme weather events. The pilot focuses on a retrofit of a residential housing block in Oakland.

The aims of this novel community-based pilot project include decarbonization through increased energy efficiency, installation of solar panels and storage, and electrification of energy uses with a shift to electric heating; survivability and recovery from extreme events; and promotion of environmental justice and universal access to clean, affordable technologies. Importantly, Sascha said of the project’s integrated design that “when you address all these different elements together, you benefit from some economies of scale,” but cautioned that increasing the size of a project brings additional complexity. 

Lessons learned from the California and Texas outages 

The recent experiences of some U.S. states with failures of grid resilience have made clear the need to manage an already changing climate accompanied by increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events. The blizzard in Texas and wildfires in California highlighted the interdependent nature of energy infrastructures and demonstrate that it is critical not only to make the electric grid reliable but protect people from harm when it does fail. 

California Energy Commission EPIC project support

The EPIC (Electric Program Investment Charge) project is part of the California Energy Commission’s efforts to encourage development of Advanced Energy Communities. EPIC supports innovative solutions to reduce electricity costs and improve energy resilience and quality of life for residents. Funding has been issued in two phases: Phase I (2015 – 2018) provided $1.5M of state funding and cost share for planning and design, while Phase II (2019-2023) granted $5M of state funding and cost share for development. Project objectives include: Retrofitting older housing stock on a city block to combine deep efficiency with a 100% solar microgrid; design of innovative legal and financial structures for community ownership and governance; integration of clean, resilient affordable energy for lower and moderate-income neighborhoods; and scalability through adaptation and replication of the model. EPIC funded 20 microgrid projects in the initial design phase, and then selected four projects for funding in the build-out phase. In addition to receiving Phase I and Phase II funding through EPIC, Oakland EcoBlock has received significant support from other partners.  

EcoBlock: Integrated design for greening our cities

The most cost-effective way to drive zero-carbon energy, deep water conservation, and resilient urban systems is by addressing these interrelated components together. To this end the EcoBlock brings together diverse teams and expertise needed to build a resilient community and innovative solutions to reducing emissions and ensuring access to clean energy.

The design is also based on the idea that the most cost-effective scale on which to achieve these goals is by working with one city block at a time. The project combines flexible, highly efficient residential retrofits to improve energy and water efficiency; switch installations from gas to electricity for heating and cooking; establish independent electric grid capacity for solar power and shared electric vehicles; and serve as a model for community-based resource management. 

The neighborhood block scale: a ‘sweet spot’Depending on season and weather, Sascha explained that it is possible to meet community energy load requirements through the local microgrid (the vertical scale on the chart), with probabilities of success indicated in blue. In a single home, for example, we can likely meet roughly 20% of the total energy load, she said, but “as we combine more homes the statistics start to work in our favor.”

This reminded me of the example of mortgage-backed securities, where giving individual mortgages might be too risky, but by aggregating them, the lender’s overall risk declines. Similarly, by aggregating the number of homes that are part of the energy grid, up to a certain threshold, you can reach a ‘sweet spot’ of optimum efficiency. Sascha’s takeaway point was that we “do better when we’re sharing—by saving money on costs—and by combining distributed resources into a single package, this makes the transition smoother and more equitable.” However, she cautioned that this is easier said than done, and “really hinges on cooperation and trust—lots of entities need to work together who will each be looking at different incentives and priorities.”

She added that once a grant has run out, the “legal, business and financial aspects become very important” because without access to funding, the project has to become a “grassroots project and the big challenge becomes figuring out how to continue the project without federal or state government funding.”

Current status of EcoBlock

The EcoBlock project is moving forward, with a majority of in-home energy assessments completed, and the team is planning to begin the physical retrofits this year. However, there is still a need to finalize the interconnection of the microgrid. As Sascha explained, Phase I initially envisioned a stand-alone DC grid, but now the plan is to connect to the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) grid. She added that fortunately “PG&E’s interest is greater now than it was a few years ago” so the team has decided to pursue collaboration because “working with PG&E to use their existing structure saves money not just on construction costs but on insurance, too.” While future EcoBlocks may be able to use their own infrastructure, the current EcoBlock pilot model is looking at sharing the infrastructure with the utility company. 

The new model for the EcoBlock pilot is unique in that PG&E would own and operate all the wires, transformers and other protective devices, yet the Community Association would maintain ownership and operate the energy assets and the microgrid controller. There are still some questions to be resolved, however, regarding this new model of ownership, as well as the use of AC or DC grids, in addition to other specifications such as building new infrastructure or using existing infrastructure and deciding between using multiple smaller batteries or once large battery, among other decisions.

Community is key

Sascha emphasized that community is key to the potential success of the project, explaining that the “most important part of this adventure is the people.” The current EcoBlock site was chosen following self-nominations from blocks who wanted to be a part of the project and added that the current block had “a relatively high level of trust with the EcoBlock team” from the start, underscoring the importance of building and maintaining the community’s trust. It is important to listen to communities and their needs and priorities. For example, she explained that the team learned from speaking to residents that access to parking was a key concern for residents.

But a challenge with a diverse team and neighborhood block is that everyone involved can have different interests. Priorities and goals for a property owner may differ from those of a renter. However, the bottom line is ensuring transparency in the process of developing a plan with impact on the community. Communication and transparency can prove a key challenge, particularly as there are six different languages spoken on the block. Once the research team finishes work in 2020, for successful operation of the EcoBlock “we need an efficient mechanism that allows community to come together, get financing, and operate on a foundation of trust.”

Paving the way for future EcoBlocks

Sascha believes that there is a very “exciting future ahead for microgrids.” Once there is a template for development of EcoBlocks in other communities, nonprofits may have a role to play in navigating legal aspects and connecting communities with finance mechanisms, to ensure that financing is put to the most effective use.

Sascha concluded the presentation on a positive note for the future, telling us that as the “city block is a recurring unit of organization, [it] gives me a lot of hope because the block is replicable.”

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