By Avi Salem, College of Environmental Design
Going green is nothing new for Harrison Fraker, professor of architecture and urban design at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley.
Fraker, a pioneer in the sustainable design field for nearly four decades, is known most notably for his innovative work with passive solar and daylighting practices in building design. But his latest endeavor hopes to bring sustainable design to the city of Oakland with an integrated, whole-systems housing retrofit model that would run entirely on renewable energy: The Oakland EcoBlock Project.
Recently recognized as one of Scientific American’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2017, the EcoBlock Project is the first of its kind: The concept would apply existing renewable technologies to a block of 30 to 40 adjoining residences to help reduce their fossil fuel and water consumption, ultimately lowering the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from them. The EcoBlock integrated systems will produce close to zero net energy on an annual basis and reduce carbon emissions by 85%, greatly exceeding CO₂ emissions mandated in SB-32, which requires the state of California to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
The EcoBlock’s multidisciplinary team of over 30 researchers includes architects, urban designers, engineers, social scientists, and policy experts from academia, private industries, nonprofits, and local, state, and federal governments. Led by Fraker and Daniel Kammen — professor of energy and public policy at UC Berkeley and chair of the Energy & Resources Group — the team has produced a 300-page final report that analyzes the methods and ways in which the EcoBlock concept could be implemented in Oakland.
The project would specifically target older, “first-ring” suburban homes that make up 30-40 percent of California’s housing stock but would otherwise not receive drastic energy retrofits.
“Right now, Americans emit about 16 tons of carbon per person, and we should be at two tons per person,” Fraker says. “If we are going to get to the levels of carbon emissions that we should be at, we can’t leave any housing stock out — that’s why we want to target this important area.”
The EcoBlock concept utilizes deep energy efficiency retrofits with a “smart” DC microgrid of community solar panels that provides electricity to the block and stores excess energy in an innovative flywheel storage device. The community solar grid has enough capacity to switch fuels from gas to electricity for heating and hot water. Residents of the EcoBlock would share electric vehicles, which would be charged by stored energy reserves, further reducing greenhouse gases and residents’ dependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, water efficiency retrofits,rainwater capture and greywater reuse, will sustain irrigation and are estimated to cut demand for potable water by 70 percent.
“Ultimately, we want to see if we can make these microgrids efficient enough to use the savings from homeowners’ energy bill to finance all these improvements,” explains Fraker. “We specifically want to establish this project in low to moderate income level neighborhoods that cannot afford financing it independently.”
The EcoBlock’s financing model is also unique in that the concept can be implemented by utility companies or third party operators without added investment in new technologies. This makes the EcoBlock idea not only innovative, but also a viable option for mass implementation in the Bay Area and beyond. “Utility companies could rebuild their infrastructure as a system of networked microgrids if they decide [the EcoBlock] is a good technical and economic model for them, and they’d be able to roll it out almost immediately,” Fraker explains.
Fraker, Kammen, and their team plan to submit the EcoBlock Project report in February to the California Energy Commission for additional funding and support. Their hope is to pilot the project in Oakland to test out its efficiency and economic viabilityl for one year and report back on the results. For Fraker, the project has the potential to be a “grassroots, bottom-up way to make an actual impact in the community” that could have an even larger impact on the future of California’s built environment.
“Beyond serving as a model for sustainability, the Oakland EcoBlock project will provide local construction jobs and revitalize a community,” Kammen writes. “If it is as successful as we expect, it will serve as a model to be replicated elsewhere in the U.S. and beyond. To date we have received inquiries from Europe, North Africa and Asia, confirming widespread interest in targeting and redesigning communities, not just individual homes.”
Read more about the EcoBlock Project here.