NEWS A Fruitvale Microgrid Could Inspire Resiliency if Approved

A Fruit­vale Micro­grid Could Inspire Resiliency — if Approved

by | May 16, 2023

Inspiration TeamA Con­trib­u­tor from our Next-​​Gen Inspi­ra­tion Team

For the orig­i­nal, click here.

Two dozen homes in Oakland’s Fruit­vale neigh­bor­hood are band­ing together to give their block a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind sus­tain­abil­ity makeover. The EcoBlock, a UC Berke­ley research project col­lab­o­rat­ing with the com­mu­nity, aims to afford­ably retro­fit urban neigh­bor­hoods to have smaller car­bon foot­prints and more reli­able energy.

Dur­ing its seven years in the mak­ing, the EcoBlock project has pushed through sky­rock­et­ing costs, per­mit­ting red tape, and com­pro­mises with Pacific Gas and Elec­tric. Although researchers antic­i­pated bring­ing upgrades to res­i­dents’ homes this spring, the lin­ger­ing effects of the pan­demic on sup­ply chains and costs are still hold­ing the project back. “Between COVID and infla­tion, our bud­get was just wal­loped,” says Therese Pef­fer, the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor on the EcoBlock research team.

If the project is even­tu­ally imple­mented, the 25 Fruit­vale homes par­tic­i­pat­ing in the EcoBlock can look for­ward to improved air qual­ity, low­ered water usage, and greener energy with new effi­cient elec­tric appli­ances, air ven­ti­la­tion, water-​​recycling laun­dry, and a shared elec­tric vehi­cle. The EcoBlock cen­ters around a key piece of infra­struc­ture: a small, local­ized energy sys­tem known as a microgrid.

Screenshot 2023-06-08 at 5.10.36 PM

By con­nect­ing to solar energy, a micro­grid could pro­vide the neigh­bors with elec­tric­ity dur­ing black­outs or PG&E’s pub­lic safety power shut-​​offs dur­ing extreme weather events. And it’s been proven to work: In 2022, a micro­grid com­mu­nity in Florida kept the lights on even as mil­lions of homes lost power dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Ian.

The Fruit­vale loca­tion was cho­sen out of a pool of self-​​nominated blocks by the UC Berke­ley Research team, PG&E, and the City of Oak­land based on vul­ner­a­bil­ity, lev­els of pol­lu­tion, and the block’s posi­tion on the city’s elec­tri­cal grid.

Daniel Hamil­ton, the Sus­tain­abil­ity and Resilience Direc­tor for the city of Oak­land, says that choos­ing a less wealthy area of Oak­land was a pri­or­ity. “There’s huge poten­tial to help the front­line com­mu­ni­ties that are already suf­fer­ing the effects of cli­mate change and have fewer resources to do the work,” he says.

Also crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the project, say Hamil­ton and researchers, are the inter­est and col­lab­o­ra­tion of res­i­dents. In 2019, with the sup­port of Peo­ple Power Solar Coop­er­a­tive, neigh­bor­hoods in Oak­land were invited to apply to be the EcoBlock. “The Fruit­vale site was the one where the com­mu­nity was most orga­nized and already most sup­port­ive” but still vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate impacts, says Hamilton.

Com­mu­nity liai­son Cathy Leonard, a long-​​time Oak­land native, says that the Oak­land EcoBlock serves as a micro­cosm for the rest of the city. Res­i­dents range in age from 1 to 80 years old, speak four dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and are of “all dif­fer­ent races and eth­nic­i­ties for a truly diverse block.” For the project, Leonard has orga­nized block par­ties and infor­ma­tion ses­sions for the Fruit­vale neighbors.

In order for soci­ety to really address cli­mate change,” says Leonard, “we have to worry about the homes that are already here.”

Screenshot 2023-06-08 at 5.11.09 PM

Since the project’s launch in 2015, the UC Berke­ley research team has had to over­come a series of hur­dles. The first site cho­sen failed due to neigh­borly dis­agree­ments. Then, while work­ing on the Oak­land neigh­bor­hood, the national cost of con­struc­tion sky­rock­eted. In 2020, the pan­demic came, bring­ing with it infla­tion and sup­ply chain issues. Some parts of the EcoBlock, such as a res­i­den­tial charg­ing sta­tion for the neighborhood’s shared elec­tric vehi­cle, are a first for the city of Oak­land and a stream­lined per­mit­ting process has not yet been estab­lished. Other reg­u­la­tions, such as state-​​wide build­ing codes, turn over reg­u­larly before the project can begin construction.

Although per­mits have been applied for, the project is in limbo while they are being processed. “I think the com­mu­nity mem­bers right­fully expected this to move much faster,” says Hamil­ton, not­ing the com­plex­ity behind EcoBlock, which has over a dozen part­ners and inter­sects with dif­fer­ent reg­u­la­tory bodies.

Among the red tape, the EcoBlock has had to con­tend with per­mit­ting and reg­u­la­tions by PG&E, which has a monop­oly on util­ity man­age­ment in the Bay Area. “I would say every step for­ward has been a bat­tle against the iner­tia of slow-​​moving util­i­ties,” says Dr. Daniel Kam­men, the co-​​principal inves­ti­ga­tor for the EcoBlock.

Energy researchers say that while micro­grids are a promis­ing solu­tion to an unre­li­able United States energy sys­tem, they are still uncom­mon. “Util­i­ties are in no rush to pro­mote clean energy that’s dis­trib­uted, and not in their con­trol,” says Kam­men. ”Which cer­tainly might be an out­come of a world full of microgrids.”

Orig­i­nally, the researchers envi­sioned giv­ing the res­i­dents a mas­ter meter, allow­ing them to “island” the block’s micro­grid from the city’s grid, for truly self-​​managed solar energy. “PG&E did not like that,” says Pef­fer. Instead, each home is now planned to be equipped with its own solar meter, that feeds into the city’s energy sup­ply as well as the EcoBlock microgrid.

Screenshot 2023-06-08 at 5.11.41 PM

PG&E has two pro­grams for defray­ing the costs of micro­grids. The Com­mu­nity Micro­grid Enable­ment Pro­gram pro­vides up to $3 mil­lion towards PG&E-related costs of installing a micro­grid. A forth­com­ing Micro­grid Incen­tive Pro­gram has $200 mil­lion of fund­ing from the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion and is antic­i­pated to be launched jointly by PG&E and other regional util­i­ties across the state in early 2023.

Paul Doherty, a spokesper­son for PG&E, says that the EcoBlock is not eli­gi­ble for this sec­ond pro­gram as it is not, “‘vul­ner­a­ble to out­ages’ by our def­i­n­i­tion, not in a high fire-​​threat area, and not in our worst per­form­ing cir­cuits list.” Accord­ing to PG&E, out of the three dozen com­mu­ni­ties cur­rently apply­ing for micro­grids, only one — The Red­wood Coast Air­port — has received fund­ing through their incen­tive programs.

With the help of the Tut­tle Law Group hired by the UC Berke­ley researchers, the EcoBlock res­i­dents have formed a demo­c­ra­tic com­mu­nity asso­ci­a­tion through which they will co-​​own their micro­grid, which includes a solar-​​power bat­tery stor­age system.

This agree­ment gives the UC Berke­ley researchers a 5-​​year run­way to study the suc­cess of the project and pro­vides clear guid­ance on what hap­pens if a prop­erty changes hands dur­ing that time. The EcoBlock research team will track the resiliency of the micro­grid to black­outs — which can be trig­gered by extreme heat, rain, or cold — to inform energy pol­icy in California.

In terms of adap­ta­tion, “two extremes exist today,” says Kam­men. “We do good green things one home at a time, or we attempt too much at once.” With just one block, the EcoBlock team strives for an achiev­able exam­ple of upgrad­ing our cities to be greener, kinder places to live.


Browse News

Main Menu

Energy & Resources Group
310 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085


  • Open the Main Menu
  • People at RAEL

  • Open the Main Menu