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Sold Out: The Oakland Block That’s Ditching Natural Gas

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(From left) Vivian Santana Pacheco, Isaac Zones, Ivan Sharamok, Gavin Sharamok (2), Jarinya Phansathin and Steven Johnson.  (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

A quarter of California’s carbon emissions come from homes and buildings — from the appliances we use to keep ourselves warm and our families fed. In this episode of KQED’s Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America, we head to a neighborhood in Oakland that is taking a revolutionary approach to reducing their emissions: by electrifying together, all at once.


Episode Transcript

A full transcript will be available 1–2 workdays after the episode’s publication.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the Bay. Local news to Keep You Rooted. A quarter of California’s carbon emissions come from homes and buildings, from the appliances we use to keep ourselves warm and feed our families. We know that replacing gas powered appliances with electric ones can help, but that process can take a long time and cost a lot of money. In the latest season of Sold Out Rethinking Housing in America, KQED reporters explore the intersection of climate change and our state’s housing crisis. And in this episode, KQED’s Laura Klivans takes us to one neighborhood in Oakland that’s taking a revolutionary approach to reducing carbon emissions by electrifying together all at once. Stay with us.

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Laura Klivans: There’s a street in Oakland, a cul de sac. As you walk toward its end. It gets quieter and quieter. You’ll find all kinds of people here.

*voices from the community*

Laura Klivans: The tight knit community here is due in large part to a handful of people. One of them is musician, Isaac Zones.

Laura Klivans: Isaac’s all about community. He’s the kind of guy who reaches out. He doesn’t just give a thumbs up on a text message. He hurts it. Seven years ago, Isaac and his wife Vivian, bought a home here. One of the first things they did was kick off a block party, which has become an August tradition.

Isaac Zones: We went door to door and introduced ourselves and encouraged people to come. And, you know, we had no idea if it would happen.

Laura Klivans: But people came. Someone made a cake and they sang Happy Birthday to the Street.

Isaac Zones: Which has become a ritual since then. So there were some very funny things like that.

Laura Klivans: But it takes real work to build those ties.

Isaac Zones: There is a sense of camaraderie on the block, but it feels tenuous sometimes. Part of that, I think, is having a group that’s so diverse racially and class wise. Like, there’s just a lot to sift through to, like, find each other and feel connected and feel like we can trust each other.

Laura Klivans: Isaac is the one who first heard about an interesting opportunity. A friend sent him an email that read Do you and your neighbors want to save money on your energy bills, reduce carbon emissions and survive the next power outage?

Isaac Zones: Basically, I read it as like free solar for everybody on my block. That sounds great.

Laura Klivans: But it’s not just free solar. It’s a research project called Eco BLOCK, and it’s run out of UC Berkeley. The point is to figure out how to quickly cut the carbon pollution produced by existing homes. That means replacing inefficient appliances, installing solar panels and connecting those solar powered homes to a battery that can keep the lights on when all else fails.

Isaac Zones: There was a plan to have like a shared electric vehicle on the block.

Laura Klivans: And all these perks would be free. In turn, the researchers at UC Berkeley would get to learn. Can this be replicated? What does it take legally, financially, and technically to pull it off? And super important. What does it take socially? Homeowners would need to sign on and some would need to help manage community assets like a shared backup battery.

Isaac Zones: Party application was like, draw us a map of all the houses that have signed off and said they want to participate. So I to be honest, I fudged that.

Laura Klivans: About a month after he turned in the application, Isaac heard their block was a finalist.

Isaac Zones: In their competitive juices, got flowing.

Laura Klivans: Again. He went door to door like he did for the block party. He signed folks up for real.

Isaac Zones: We did finally get word that we were being chosen to be the eco block, which was felt like a huge victory.

Laura Klivans: Vivian Santana Pacheco is married to Isaac. This community is a huge part of her life, too. All these veggies bursting from garden boxes on the street, they’re mostly her doing so.

Vivian Santana Pacheco: I’ve been helping people use the space that they have to to grow food. And like I started a ton of tomatoes in my living room.

Laura Klivans: Vivian thinks about the climate crisis all the time. She’s one of five homeowners who’s leading the neighborhood association for Eco BLOCK. And here’s one other big reason she and Isaac are so invested. Now, their four year old.

Laura Klivans: His name is Moisés. But right now he’s, you know, a cat.

Laura Klivans: Now we want this world to be a habitable one for him. Being able to say like we did as much as we could to be part of that, and already I felt like we’re behind and that I’m not doing enough. This feels more tangible than showing up to a protest.

Laura Klivans: Across the street and just a few doors down, I meet up with another family, Ismael Plascencia, or IS shows me around the two bedroom apartment they rent. There’s a lot of life packed in here.

Ismael Plascencia: It’s a leopard gecko. Sometimes he can call or.

Laura Klivans: And up in the tall Tupperware on the mantle.

Ismael Plascencia: The spider was. It was like a tiny house spider. And we’ve been raising it for the past two months.

Laura Klivans: Plus, there are snails. A lot of snails.

Ismael Jr.: I think I have 21 of them.

Laura Klivans: That’s six year old Ismael Junior. Both Ismail’s plus mom, Cheryl Kleinsmith and their daughter moved here about five years ago.

Ismael Plascencia: It’s nice. Just tons of windows. And then we realized how hot it got this place.

Cheryl Kleinsmith: When it’s hot, it’s hot. When it’s cold, it’s very cold.

Laura Klivans: So when they heard about Eco block, they wanted in, but they would need to get their property owners to sign on.

Ismael Plascencia: I reached out to them and they’re like, Oh, yeah, this is some guy’s been calling us.

Laura Klivans: That guy was Isaac.

Ismael Plascencia: It’s like, it’s too good to be true. We we don’t want to do any of that. And, you know, I was like, well, it does kind of sound too good to be true. I get that. But I’m like, you know, what do you have to lose? I’m like, you know, it’s it’s going to increase your property value.

Laura Klivans: The owners agreed as long as is, and Cheryl went to the meetings and shared back. While they don’t own their place now, they’d like to someday.

Ismael Plascencia: I was super interested in the project, so I’m like, even just for educational purposes, I’d love to just sit at all these meetings or totally would do that.

Laura Klivans: One of the upgrades Cheryl is and other neighbors would get is a heat pump. It’s a machine that works as both a heater and an AC. It’s electric and way more efficient than the wall heater they never turn on. They’d get to ditch their gas powered water heater, too. Right now, it sits behind a wooden door in their kitchen. When that’s gone and the new electric water heater is installed outside, Cheryl’s got a vision.

Cheryl Kleinsmith: Maybe that’s crazy, but one of the things I’m most excited about is getting a pantry instead of a water heater.

Laura Klivans: Is and Cheryl both grew up here in Oakland. They both work in Oakland. She’s a scheduler in a surgeon’s office, and he runs community programs for an art school. Even as rents have increased. They’ve made it work to stay and raise their kids here. What they saw in Eco BLOCK was a commitment to all of Oakland, not just the wealthier parts of the city where people could probably afford to upgrade their own homes.

Ismael Plascencia: They presented this like this opportunity to transform Oakland in a way that, you know, I don’t think that that most folks would have prioritized a community like this. But projects like this are just you know, they’re inspiring to me just to know that we can transform a neighbor. That could potentially transform a whole community.

Laura Klivans: This project didn’t start with the residents, though. It started in the minds of researchers like Therese Peffer. She walks me around the block, often stopping as she goes through an invisible mental checklist. Right now she’s kicking around leaves and staring at the sidewalk beneath her.

Therese Peffer: I was told that there was a water meter seven feet away from that train and see if.

Laura Klivans: She’s looking for a spot where she could place a charger for a shared electric vehicle.

Therese Peffer: Because it has to be so far away from the pole for the meter from a fire hose. Oh, it can’t be so close to that. Oh, here. There’s a red curb here.

Laura Klivans: Most of her days are made up of details like this. This is where the electrification rubber meets the road. Therese has been fascinated with energy for decades. She spent a chunk of her toes living off the grid in Oregon in a community powered by just the sun and wind.

Therese Peffer: And I just learned a ton about really living within your means, especially your energy means. I brought up a toaster oven one time and we could only use it when the sun was very plentiful that day. No clouds. And if the wind was blowing really hard.

Laura Klivans: She became captivated by how to reduce carbon emissions that come from people’s homes, not the brand new ones, like at that futuristic Southern California development, but the homes that have been around for decades. Here in Oakland.

Therese Peffer: Two thirds of all homes in California were built before energy codes, no insulation, single pane windows.

Laura Klivans: A.k.a. a huge waste of energy.

Therese Peffer: New construction is easy, right? And it’s sexy and it’s fun, but it’s not where the biggest problem is. If we’re going to try to really combat climate change, it is looking at the existing buildings in this country.

Laura Klivans: Tackle them separately. Home by home, appliance by appliance. It would take a long time. It would be expensive and it would exclude people who can’t afford to electrify. Tackle one block together. You could buy appliances in bulk. Guarantee work for contractors. Drive down the cost. You could have neighbors talking up the benefits to their peers to make it work on eco block. Theresa needs to bring together a whole host of.

Therese Peffer: People, contractor, architect, experts on microgrid, experts on energy inside the home. We have a civil engineer. We have a mobility expert, solar contractor, urban planners, energy regulatory lawyer, cooperative lawyer. I have a real estate lawyer and they don’t have the same language attached to each other. So it takes a lot of meetings to kind of figure that out.

Laura Klivans: It’s an intimidating idea, but Terrace loves being a bridge between all these people and the residents.

Therese Peffer: Something about tapping into a community and strengthening the real relationships with people, not the Facebook relationships or Instagram or whatever, but the door to door, the face to face, the people that pass you day to day on the street.

Laura Klivans: Eco BLOCK draws folks in. Well, most folks. Hello. How’s it going?

Steve Johnson: Oh, pretty good.

Laura Klivans: I meet Steve Johnson midday on a Saturday. He just came back from a coffee with his buddies. A ritual he’s followed for about 40 years.

Steve Johnson: A little bit of iced tea right here.

Laura Klivans: Oh, thank you so much. Sure.

Steve Johnson: Okay. Well, this house was bought by my immigrant grandparents in 1925. So this house has been in my family for almost 100 years. Matter of fact, my mother was born in that room over there. Well, in 1930, you know, that’s the way they did it. She was born at home on some newspapers.

Laura Klivans: Steve remembers coming here when he was a kid, hanging out with his grandparents, especially in the backyard.

Steve Johnson: This actually is an apple tree that my father gave me. Planted it, like 25 years ago. No way. My grandmother planted that tree maybe 1990 years ago. These two houses over here were a giant vacant lot.

Laura Klivans: He points to the house next door. And. And is this place.

Steve Johnson: And those two vacant lots were a gigantic garden. It was a huge victory garden when I was a young boy.

Laura Klivans: Steve bought the house from his grandmother nearly 50 years ago, and he rebuilt it himself. He’s a retired contractor.

Steve Johnson: You know, I spent maybe 30 years on and off remodeling this house, and I just finally got it completely remodeled. And for my taste.

Laura Klivans: He insulated it, added skylights and even put in his own greywater system that runs water from his drains straight to his garden.

Steve Johnson: So every time I take a shower, I’m watering the apple tree or something like that.

Laura Klivans: The guy generally uses very little energy. So by all accounts, you’d think he’d be all in on eco block. Right.

Steve Johnson: You know, I’m 70 years old. I just didn’t want to go through a lot of new construction all over again because I really don’t need it. I wanted to show you this is my puny bill.

Laura Klivans: His monthly electricity bill is 46 bucks. And Steve’s not the only holdout. Ten out of the 25 buildings here have not signed on to Eco block. Some people don’t want to be so tied to their neighbors. Others have done unpermitted work on their homes and despite assurances from the city, are worried they’ll get in trouble.

Steve Johnson: And then the other thing is that any time we have a family party, I do all the cooking for everybody. I just can’t imagine not cooking on gas. And the whole eco block wanted to take away the gas.

Laura Klivans: Capping off the gas line was one dream for this project. But here’s the thing. State code says that if one person on a block wants a gas appliance, the whole gas line stretching invisibly below our feet must stay. That means the utility has to maintain it and customers have to pay for it. So Steve said no, but it wasn’t so easy.

Steve Johnson: There was a little bit of peer pressure in the beginning when everybody was sort of recruiting to have everybody sign up to join the project.

Laura Klivans: Even before Steve felt a bit of a generational divide. He’s in his seventies. The residents leaning eco block are decades younger. He says they worked hard to include him anyway.

Steve Johnson: Still, if you weren’t really all for it, then everybody’s trying to convince you why you should be for it. And I kind of felt that I was starting to get sort of left out of the general scene, even though I’m kind of like the senior citizen on this block.

Laura Klivans: It’s not that Steve doesn’t care about reducing carbon emissions. He just thinks we should tackle other stuff first, like airplanes or shipping. He has real concerns about the supply of energy, the cost. What would happen if there were a power outage?

Steve Johnson: It’s just there is overwhelmingly, sweepingly changing everything in my life that I wanted.

Laura Klivans: And he’s not alone. People have all kinds of cultural and emotional ties to things like gas stoves. There is a fear of change, and not everyone wants to move so fast. When you compare Echo BLOCK to what it looked like at the start of the project, here’s what you’ll notice. Not much has changed. Why the Street was chosen for the project right at the start of 2020. You may remember the life altering events of that time.

Steve Johnson: The pandemic has pushed prices beyond what anyone might have expected. For those renovating, building a home, or buying one from a developer.

Laura Klivans: Tyrese says they couldn’t get the lumber to shore up roofs for solar. And this was on top of a budget based on 2016.

Therese Peffer: Numbers, and they were just woefully inadequate.

Laura Klivans: The budget they’re working with to electrify one city block is slightly more than 8 million bucks. Five of that comes from the state. The rest is from an anonymous donor. So Theresa’s constantly applying for more grants to supplement that amount.

Therese Peffer: The fact that the project has stretched out so long that eats away at our budget.

Laura Klivans: The project’s scope has shrunk. Some residents told me they’d be getting new doors and stoves. They won’t remember that micro-grid and shared battery. While I was reporting this story, the grant for it fell through. At this point, residents will mainly be getting insulation, heat pumps and solar panels and red tape from the city, and utility keeps slowing down the process. After I first talked with residents, Pegg and he decided to upgrade the electric lines on the street to support a bigger load. While the utility fast tracked the process, it will still take around six more months for the residents. The waiting can be frustrating and is most apparent in little ways, like Isaac and Vivian’s fridge. They’re pretty sure the project won’t provide one, but they’re holding out hope that some additional grant will come through.

Laura Klivans: They’re grateful. They don’t have to deal with all the details, all the behind the scenes work, but they feel some pressure that this succeeds.

Isaac Zones: As I was like going door to door and trying to get people to sign a letter of intent to be part of the eco block, I think probably some of that was like, did they trust me or not? You know, I often felt like some of my credibility as a neighbor is on the line here of this project going well.

Laura Klivans: In the few months I spent reporting this story, I started rooting for Eco BLOCK. They’re trying something new. If the project works, it could inspire other neighborhoods across the Bay Area and the country. But when you look at what this group set out to do, it doesn’t seem like they’ll achieve it. And that made me feel discouraged. Time is not on our side. As we race to cut the harmful pollution our society was built on. If eco block can’t make it work, maybe this type of electrification is a nonstarter.

Ram Rajagopal: The way I see it is the opposite.

Laura Klivans: Ram Rajagopal is an engineering professor at Stanford University. He’s not involved in this project but works on similar ones. He says as a society, we’re past the first phase of electrification when it was a niche.

Ram Rajagopal: And it’s usually the super rich dude in Palo Alto.

Laura Klivans: But now electrification is going mainstream. Heat pumps outsold gas furnaces for the first time last year, and the Biden administration passed a major climate law offering billions for households to electrify.

Ram Rajagopal: The fact that we’re all frustrated now is a good sign because we’re frustrated by the right thing. We’re really trying to replace these things and we are now seeing the roadblocks.

Laura Klivans: Eco BLOCK may not be the perfect model for neighborhood scale electrification. It’s more of a rough draft. It is a research project. There are lessons in its successes and in its failures.

Ram Rajagopal: It would be a mistake to say, okay, we’re not going to support this eco block project because of, you know, things are too slow. Actually, I would say we now need to give them money to figure out how to make it go fast.

Laura Klivans: He thinks we need hundreds of projects like this one all over the country to figure out every day crucial details. A block is a place we live. We rent or buy. We come with excitement. Or just because this place was the right size at the right price at the right time. We spend our days here, we hear the same sounds as our neighbors. We watch the same colors move across the sky. But a lot of times we don’t know each other’s names. And that’s where this Oakland block is different. Tyreece, the researcher, feels that.

Therese Peffer: We’ve struck a chord here. Oh, we just need to finish it. But but I think there’s something exciting about working with your neighbors. You’re building those relationships and building that social resilience, I call it.

Laura Klivans: It’s not some utopia, but it is a place where social ties are stronger because of this shared project where people could help to shield each other from extreme heat, wildfire smoke, power outages. Here’s Vivian.

I feel like all of this is helping us remember that we’re like, interconnected and that we can rely on each other. And I think that that’s the only way that we’re going to solve this climate crisis.

Laura Klivans: In early fall, construction finally began. Homes are getting new insulation. Heat pumps are going in. With luck, residents will be able to actually connect their new electric appliances to the power grid this winter. And come summer, any and all residents will celebrate together at their annual block party.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was KQED reporter Laura Klivans. You can find more from the latest season of Sold Out Rethinking Housing in America wherever You Get Your Podcasts. This episode was written and reported by Laura Klivans, and it was edited by Kevin Stark and Erica Kelly and engineered by Brendan Willard. The series is hosted by Erin Baldassari. Shout out as well to the KQED Podcast team. That’s Jen Chien, our director of podcasts. Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, Cesar Saldana and Maha Sanad for engagement support, and Holly Kernan, our chief Content officer. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Talk to you Wednesday.

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