EcoBlocks: What are they and how is the Oakland version different?
The concept of an ‘eco-block’ comes from the idea of resource self-sufficient communities that generate their own renewable energy, recycle and reuse all their water and waste, enable carbon free transportation and grow much of their own food.
Beginnings at Berkeley
The ‘eco-block’ concept originated[i] in the spring of 2005 as part of a College of Environmental Design (CED) studio project at UC Berkeley. Sponsored by the Planning and Design Institute of Tianjin, China, the studio was tasked with developing principles and prototypes for a high-density, transit-oriented development (TOD). Through comprehensive design and analysis, the studio discovered that it was feasible to transform China’s dense, car-oriented ‘gated super blocks’ into sustainable, self-sufficient ‘eco-blocks’ that:
- Generate their own energy through efficient energy production and renewables (including solar energy and small-scale wind power);
- Treat and recycle their water and waste (converting waste to energy);
- Reduce car dependence and greenhouse gas emissions through use of electric vehicles (EVs) and access to public transit; and
- Could grow a significant portion of its produce.
Developing EcoBlock Prototypes
The EcoBlock concept’s potential to reduce the carbon footprint of Chinese urban development prompted several projects in Asia to develop a prototype. The first, a TOD neighborhood in Qingdao, involved a design and feasibility report that found the concept was feasible with existing technologies and could add approximately 10% in construction cost with an 8-10 year payback. The second project was a new Sino-Singapore Eco City development in Tanggu (2008), and the third adapted the EcoBlock approach for Tianjin University’s New Green Campus (2008 -12). In the end these three projects did not proceed—no one was willing to undertake such an innovative and integrated systems approach without the technical, financial and institutional structures in place to support long-term ownership, operation and maintenance.
Frustrated by these aborted efforts, the author took a sabbatical after stepping down as Dean of CED in 2012 and traveled the world to study first generation efforts at creating sustainable neighborhoods using an integrated systems approach. This led to the publication of The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods (Island Press 2013), which examined lessons learned from the design and performance of four low-carbon communities. The experience motivated the author to search for an opportunity to build an EcoBlock prototype in the Bay Area.
EcoBlock: An Ideal Sustainable Retrofit Solution
While China is dominated by new construction, California–and the U.S.–must reduce the carbon footprint of existing housing stock in order to meet their goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The EcoBlock concept can play a critical role if utilized as a retrofit strategy. This concept was proven with the project’s successful application to the California Energy Commission (CEC)’s Electric Program Investment Charge Program (EPIC) grant program.
The EcoBlock Vision: Towards Resilient Communities and Shared Prosperity
The original EcoBlock proposal was to retrofit an existing, low-to-moderate income block in the Golden Gate neighborhood of Oakland, CA. The project adopted an integrated systems approach that combined:
- Deep energy efficiency;
- Water conservation;
- A microgrid of renewable energy supply (from photovoltaics or PVs; and
- The electrification of heating, water and transportation through use of shared EVs.
It was argued that the retrofitted EcoBlock could achieve close to 100% renewable energy and low water usage with dramatic reductions in carbon emissions. Applying these systems at the neighborhood scale would not only create greater cost savings, but could be paid for through reduced utility and transportation costs, the creative application of government subsidies, and innovative financing mechanisms. With this proposal the “Oakland EcoBlock” was born.
The Oakland EcoBlock Team
Phase 1 of the Oakland EcoBlock project was led by principal investigators (PIs) Dan Kammen and Harrison Fraker (and later; the 30-member design and research team consisted of leading faculty from UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab (LBNL), and Stanford University; professional consulting firms in electric energy, water, energy efficiency retrofits, community outreach; and participation by the City of Oakland. The CEC Phase I report concluded that:
- The EcoBlock concept was permittable under existing zoning conditions (with some exceptions requiring special procedures);
- Creative and proven financing mechanisms are available;
- Appropriate legal and governance structures for homeowner participation already existed; and
- Financial feasibility looked promising depending on cost efficiencies, when applied at greater scale (e.g. a block or neighborhood)
Conclusions from the report provided the basis for a successful CEC Phase 2 proposal to construct a prototype in Oakland, this time at a new site in the city’s Fruitvale district, and the California Institute for Energy and the Environment (CIEE) assumed administration of the contract.
Since then, much progress has been made. Residents of the Fruitvale block have signed on to participate; home assessments are nearly complete and relevant energy and water data has been collected; construction is scheduled to start in early 2022; and most importantly, PG&E has been working with the EcoBlock team to create a framework for the microgrid, leveraging their existing distribution infrastructure to reduce project costs and serve as a model for the grid integration of future EcoBlocks.
Ultimately, what began as an innovative, “what if”, design hypothesis may prove to be a scalable model for retrofitting existing housing into a network of resilient microgrids, providing a sustainable, equitable, and accessible future for communities.
Welcome to the EcoBlock blog! We’re thrilled to launch this new platform in celebration of Earth Month and look forward to regularly sharing content related to sustainability, energy and resource efficiency, community resilience, and more. Stay tuned for our upcoming Earth Day blog featuring a wide range of activities you can participate in to celebrate our planet!
 Arup North America Limited with Harrison Fraker and Huahui Designs, Qingdoa EcoBlock Pre-Feasibility Report (2007)
Image credit: Eunice Chung