Wednesday, February 24, 2016

EcoBlocks as Climate Solution

(April 10, 2016 update:  A summary of the EcoBlocks proposal with contacts has been posted here.  On March 25, the California Energy Commission announced plans to fund $1.5 million of the project costs, contingent on approval by the full Commission.)

Achieving much greater energy efficiency in existing buildings is one of the keys to the California 2030 goal of an overall reduction of 40% in greenhouse gas emissions.  (See Climate Dispatch post:  California 2030 Climate Goals:  Energy Efficiency)

California is now working on measures to reach roughly a 17% reduction in existing building energy use.  This is double the expected energy savings of just a few months ago.  Since many buildings already have efficiency measures and many building owners will not want to retrofit their structures, the savings from buildings that are retrofitted will have to noticeable exceed 17% in order for the state to reach an overall 17% reduction


Getting existing building owners to adopt efficiency measures has been a major challenge.  As the California Energy Commission pointed out in their recent Existing Buildings Energy Efficiency Action Plan, "Breaking through background noise to achieve actual engagement and resulting action is difficult." (p. 84)

One concern raised by the Energy Commission is that building owners are faced with many overlapping messages and the resulting confusion may result in inaction.

Source:  Existing Buildings Energy Efficiency Action Plan, p. 85

A team from U.C. Berkeley and Stanford is working on a novel approach to induce homeowners to install a range of climate-friendly energy, water and transportation retrofits.  Rather than look at retrofits on a single home, they are concentrating on an entire square block of homes.  By retrofitting many adjacent homes at once, a number of measures that aren't practical for a single home suddenly make sense for the collection of homes.  And, all homeowners on the square block should see savings in utility bills.



The innovative "EcoBlock" project was described by Energy and Resources Group Chair Harrison Fraker at the recent Philomathia Forum in Berkeley..  According to Professor Fraker, as much as 45% of California homes are in in old-style cities and suburbs filled with square (or rectangular) blocks.  If we’re going to reach emissions mandates, says Fraker, “we really have to figure out how to decarbonize existing housing stock .. the existing building stock is a major generator of carbon emissions.”

U C Berkeley Energy and Resources Group Chiar Harrison Fraker


Professor Fraker and his colleagues have proposed an EcoBlock pilot project in Oakland to decarbonize a group of 28 homes and a few businesses.  They are hopeful the project will receive initial funding in the next few months.  If successful, the project could be replicated on blocks throughout the state and country.

The goals are impressive.  The EcoBlock pilot project will:
  • use net zero energy
  • be greenhouse gas neutral or better
  • have very low water usage
  • promote electric vehicle usage
  • incorporate energy storage
  • be rapidly deployable
This will be accomplished through a series of inter-related systems.  Solar panels will be the basic energy source, backed up by a storage in batteries, flywheels and shared electric cars.  The batteries, including car batteries, will help manage the electric load of the dwellings.  The homes will be retrofitted to achieve "deep energy" savings through lighting, window replacements and appliances.  All gas-fired appliances will be replaced with super efficient electric units.

Part of the team is a group from Sanford working on the water system.  Rainwater and greywater will be captured for reuse.  Wastewater will be treated and used for irrigation of trees and gardens.  



Professor Fraker says they will be able to reduce total home energy use from 690 megawatt hours per year to 280 megawatt hours with the energy retrofits.  The solar is expected to produce 350 megawatt hours, with the net surplus powering the vehicle batteries.  The utility and transportation savings from will be used, in part, to cover the cost of many of the efficiency improvements.

If successful, the EcoBlock could either be disruptive to the current utility structure, or could give utilities a new mission.  Creative entrepreneurs could retrofit large areas of California while minimizing or eliminating the need for traditional utility customer relationships.  Alternatively, the installation and maintenance of EcoBlocks could be a  new business paradigm for utilities as they evolve into energy and environmental servicers.

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