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Electric Avenue: One Oakland Block's Improbable Journey to Ditch Gas

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Three photos side-by-side of people standing in front of their homes.
(From left) Vivian Santana Pacheco, Isaac Zones, Ivan Sharamok, Gavin Sharamok (2), Jarinya Phansathin and Steven Johnson. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

This story is part of the third season of KQED’s podcast Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America. You can find that series here and read about why KQED chose to focus a season of its housing podcast on climate change.

The residents of one block in East Oakland have been quietly writing a rough draft of how to ditch natural gas on a neighborhood scale.

A quarter of California’s carbon emissions come from homes, businesses and the energy used to power them. It’s a steady stream of planet-warming gasses pouring from our furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers and ovens.

To slash those emissions and meet the state’s climate targets, Californians need to replace fossil-fuel-powered appliances with electric ones.

The status quo for electrification is to replace those appliances home-by-home at the end of their useful life. The approach is expensive, excludes people who cannot afford these upgrades and will take decades.

So, there’s growing interest in a different option: neighborhood-scale electrification. It can drive down costs as neighbors purchase electric stoves, heat pumps and solar panels in bulk and guarantee work for contractors. That’s the idea, anyway.

What follows is the story of one group of neighbors in Oakland who spent the last four years trying to electrify their homes collectively as part of a research project.

Here is what they have learned.

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The vision

The project is called EcoBlock, and it is a partnership between academics, professionals, government, utilities, private donors and residents. Its primary goal is to help an entire city block cut emissions through insulation upgrades, electric appliances and solar panels meant to “improve resilience, sustainability and quality of life.”

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Originally, project leaders even intended to transform the block into a microgrid — a self-contained electricity system that can run even if power from PG&E shuts off — although funding for that portion of the project remains uncertain.

All these perks are free to homeowners who sign up. In turn, researchers get to learn from the pilot.

The project is funded to the tune of $8 million — five of which come from the California Energy Commission, the other three come from an anonymous donor.

The block in East Oakland is a cul-de-sac, with the busy thoroughfare of Fruitvale Avenue on one end and a peaceful creek on the other. There’s a mix of Victorian homes that date back more than 100 years and more recently built duplexes and apartment buildings.

KQED is not disclosing the name of the block to protect the privacy of the residents.

The people who live here are a mashup of homeowners and renters, socioeconomic classes, races, and ethnicities. Despite their differences, the residents come together annually for a block party, and have a WhatsApp group where topics range from safety to backyard fruit giveaways.

After navigating years of pandemic delays, inflation and onerous regulation, construction began this fall.

Residents hope to connect their new electric appliances to the larger grid this winter.

“We think that this is scalable,” said Therese Peffer, a researcher from UC Berkeley’s California Institute for Energy and Environment CITRIS Climate initiative, who heads EcoBlock. “We think addressing the urban residential [housing sector] is a huge, huge win because no one else is doing that.”

While the project may be cutting-edge, it hasn’t been without setbacks. EcoBlock managers had hoped to cap off the street’s gas line, which, based on how utilities interpret state energy code, would require 100% of residents to agree to swap out their gas appliances for electric ones. Ten out of the 25 neighbors have not.

Building a new green home is fairly straightforward. In recent years, futuristic communities have popped up with this as their express purpose. Instead of using natural gas to heat space and water, dry clothes and cook, these homes are going electric and pulling power from renewable sources like solar.

But what happens to the places already built? In California, that’s 14 million existing homes, three-quarters of which were built before energy efficiency standards requiring things like insulation were developed in 1978.

“New construction is easy,” Peffer, EcoBlock’s principal investigator, said. “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.”

“Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that we need to be taking more of a utility-scale or a neighborhood-scale approach to building decarbonization instead of waiting for an individual appliance to break and then trying through education and bribery to cajole people to make the right choice,” said Panama Bartholomy, who heads the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a national nonprofit that advocates to remove fossil fuels from buildings.

The initiators

Two photos side by side: one of two people and one of a blue house.
Vivian Santana Pacheco and Isaac Zones and their home in Oakland on Oct. 19, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Isaac Zones, 42, and Vivian Santana Pacheco, 39

Isaac Zones learned about the Oakland EcoBlock in 2019 from a friend, who’d sent along an email with the subject line, “This looks cool.” The email linked to a UC Berkeley EcoBlock project page asked a question: “Do you and your neighbors want to save money on your energy bills, reduce carbon emissions, and survive the next power outage?”

“Basically, I read it as like free solar for everybody on my block,” said Zones, a musician. “This sounds great.”

Zones applied and went door-to-door, reaching out to his neighbors to gauge interest.

Vivian Santana Pacheco, who is married to Zones, was also intrigued.

Santana Pacheco regularly thinks about the climate crisis. “Already I feel like we’re behind and that I’m not doing enough,” she said. “Honestly, this feels more tangible than showing up to a protest.”

In many ways, the two were an ideal pair to champion the project at its start. They’d spent the past several years building community on their block through the street’s annual party. Zones easily strikes up conversations with neighbors, and knocks on doors and calls them to check in. Santana Pacheco, a health educator, shares her own vegetable starts with neighbors who have garden boxes that lay fallow.

She’s also one of five neighbors on a steering committee for the newly formed homeowner’s association, created to manage the project’s shared assets, like an electric vehicle.

They are motivated by their 4-year-old son. “We want this world to be a habitable one for him, being able to say we did as much as we could to be part of that,” said Santana Pacheco.

The homeowners

Two photos side by side: One of two people and a child and one of a house.
(From left) Ivan Sharamok, Gavin Sharamok (2) and Jarinya Phansathin and their home in Oakland on Oct. 19, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Ivan Sharamok, 39; Jarinya Phansathin, 32; and Gavin Sharamok, 2

Homeowner Ivan Sharamok, a solutions architect for an IT startup, jokes that he lives in a museum, given that his white Victorian was constructed in 1900. He’s curious how a team of EcoBlock researchers will bring it to the forefront of home electrification.

He also can’t wait to see how he’ll actually like living in a home warmed and cooled by a heat pump or how cooking on an induction stove will feel. Sharamok dove into research on the latest technologies, and while he’s excited, he’s also skeptical.

“It’s kind of like a game,” Sharamok said. “Once it gets installed and I try it, would it actually be to my satisfaction?”

Growing up in Ukraine, he recalls winters with tons of snow. But over his lifetime, the winters have gotten milder and milder, which he attributes to climate change.

“I’m very skeptical that, on a global scale, society can tackle this problem. But I’m hopeful that we can,” Sharamok said.

Sharamok has taken on a role in the steering committee for the EcoBlock homeowner’s association.

“It’s a super long process, but I also understand why,” Sharamok said. Just creating agreements for the homeowners association took time. “It’s pretty awesome to see what goes into the design, what you need to think about when you’re trying to do something like that.”

Two photos side by side: one of a person with glasses and one of a house.
Nick Corlett and his home in Oakland on Oct. 12, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Nick Corlett, 38
“I love humanity with all our flaws and all our ugliness. We’ve pulled off some amazing things, and I hate to see us collectively failing to act [on climate change],” said Nick Corlett, a tutor for high school students.

Before EcoBlock came to his street, Corlett’s house was the only one with solar panels. Now, he’s gearing up for his roof to be covered with even more.

He’s taken an active role in the homeowners association, and offered his backyard as a place for the back-up, shared battery, or what he calls the “the energy shack.” If it comes through, Corlett would get some financial compensation from the homeowners association.

He’s learned a lot about collaboration through the process.

“We had to design it so that anyone who’s joining couldn’t just get all the free stuff and back out immediately. We put together all the agreements to incentivize people to stay in the project,” Corlett said. “I think we’ve got something that hopefully everyone will be happy to be a part of.”

Corlett is excited about EcoBlock, and he’s happy to help neighbors who didn’t sign up. “If their power is out and ours is on, and they want to come over and microwave a burrito or something, they’re welcome to do it,” Corlett said.

The renters

Two photos side by side: One of a family of four and one of a pink house.
(From left) Cheryls Kleinsmith, Ismael Plasencia, Isla Rose Plasencia (9), and Ismal Plasencia Jr. (6) and their home in Oakland on Oct. 19, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Cheryl Kleinsmith, 45; Ismael Plasencia, 49; Isla Rose Plasencia, 9; and Ismael Plasencia Jr., 6

Cheryl Kleinsmith and Ismael Plasencia love all the natural light their apartment gets from all its windows. They do not love how vulnerable that makes them to the weather.

“When it’s hot, it’s hot. When it’s cold, it’s very cold,” said Kleinsmith. EcoBlock would insulate their home and provide heat pumps, electric appliances that can heat and cool space inside a home, and serve as a water heater.

But Kleinsmith and Plasencia are renters. They had to convince their property owners to join, who thought it sounded too good to be true.

“I was like, it does kind of sound too good to be true,” Plasencia said. “I get that. But what do you have to lose? It’s going to increase your property value.”

The owners eventually agreed, as long as Kleinsmith and Plasencia would go to the meetings and share relevant information.

“I was super interested in the project,” Plasencia said. “Just for educational purposes, I’d love to just sit at all these meetings.”

Kleinsmith and Plasencia, who hope to buy their own home in the future, both grew up in Oakland. They both work here: 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 here and raise their kids here.

What they saw in EcoBlock 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.

“It presented this opportunity to transform Oakland in a way that I don’t think most folks would have prioritized,” Plasencia said. “But projects like this are inspiring to me: just to know that we can transform a neighborhood that could potentially transform a whole community.”

The holdouts

Two photos side by side: one of a person leaning on a railing and one of a white house.
Steven Johnson and his home in Oakland on Oct. 12, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Steve Johnson, 70
Not all neighbors are enthusiastic about EcoBlock.

Steve Johnson lives in a wooden home that’s been in his family for nearly a century. He’s reminded of them in every spot: the room where his mother was born on newspapers or the backyard tree that’s grown from the sapling his grandmother planted 90 years ago.

Johnson, a retired contractor, bought the house from his grandmother in the 1970s, and has spent decades rebuilding it: he put in insulation, skylights and even a greywater system that runs water from his drain straight to his garden.

“I just finally got it completely remodeled and for my tastes,” Johnson said. The idea of outside contractors coming into his home felt overwhelming and unnecessary.

“I just didn’t want to go through a lot of new construction all over again because I really don’t need it,” Johnson said. He already uses very little energy, plus, he didn’t want to part with his gas stove.

“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 EcoBlock wanted to take away the gas,” Johnson said.

Johnson cares about reducing carbon emissions. But he thinks society should tackle other sources of it before homes, like air travel or shipping. He also has concerns about the energy supply, the cost, and what would happen to an all-electric home during a power outage.

And Johnson has another feeling, too. “It’s just they were overwhelmingly, sweepingly changing everything in my life that I wanted.”

The utility

Jeremy Donnell, 47

PG&E provides the backbone for EcoBlock, as the project will use the utility’s electric grid to support upgraded appliances, solar panels and a potential backup storage battery.

Jeremy Donnell is a senior manager who works on microgrids for PG&E.

Donnell says the utility “fully supports” EcoBlock and is working with the UC Berkeley team to make it come to pass, but acknowledged that “it is a challenge on multiple levels to do a project of this size.”

Donnell said that because not all of the neighbors bought into the project, it creates challenges when designing a microgrid: it’s hard to exclude some customers. While he believes the state should be funding projects like this, he cautions that they are not free to implement.

There are always gaps when you move from theory to reality, he said.

“When you reach for the stars, sometimes you don’t make it all the way, but maybe you make it to the moon. And so that’s progress in and of itself,” Donnell said.

A woman with red curly hair and a blue shirt stands in front of a tree.
Associate Director of the California Institute for Energy and Environment at UC Berkeley Therese Peffer stands for a portrait in Oakland on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The researchers

Therese Peffer, 56

Researchers at UC Berkeley’s California Institute for Energy and Environment CITRIS Climate initiative are studying the EcoBlock in real time.

Pulling off a project like EcoBlock is akin to directing a synchronized swim with several different marine animals. A lot of Peffer’s time is not spent on the grand ideas but on communicating them. Peffer is coordinating a team of dozens: contractors, architects, civil engineers, urban planners, experts in mobility, energy, and solar, and lawyers of all stripes.

“They don’t have the same language to talk to each other,” Peffer said. “It takes a lot of meetings to kind of figure that out.”

Peffer also spends her days working through minute details, like where to place a charger for a shared electric vehicle for the block. She’s well versed in the labyrinth of city and state code and requirements from a utility.

Peffer leans into this level of head-spinning detail. She feels she is trying to solve a real problem.

“I really do like the approach of targeting the hard-to-reach customers and low-to-middle income [people] because I feel like more wealthy neighborhoods, you’re going to figure it out,” Peffer said.

The takeaways

Initiative should come from residents

Choosing a place with strong social ties that volunteered itself for the project was “one of the smartest things we did because they were invested,” said Peffer. “That continues to be the biggest success story, that neighbor-to-neighbor, peer-to-peer communication and selling it.”

Peffer said it was far faster and more powerful when residents championed the idea.

Residents of a previous Oakland EcoBlock pilot on another street chosen by researchers never fully bought in, and the project fell apart.

Timing is everything

Ecoblock has been hampered by pandemic-era supply chain shortages, which has slowed down construction.

Delays also stem from regulatory and technical hurdles from the city and PG&E. For example, the utility recently decided to upgrade the electric lines on the street to support a bigger load. While PG&E fast-tracked the process, it will still take six more months.

On top of that, the project has had to scale back its plans for a microgrid and other ambitions because of inflation.

Frustration can be good

Ram Rajagopal, an engineering professor at Stanford University who is not involved in EcoBlock but has worked on similar ones, views the setbacks EcoBlock has faced as positive. He argues that as a society, we’re past the first phase of electrification when it was a niche hobby, “the super-rich dude in Palo Alto,” he said.

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

“It would be a mistake to say, okay, we’re not going to support this EcoBlock project because things are too slow,” Rajagopal said. “Actually, I would say we now need to give them money to figure out how to make it go fast.”

A shared project leads to resilience

While the block is not a utopia, numerous residents said participating in EcoBlock brought them closer to their neighbors.

“We’ve struck a chord here, we just need to finish it,” Peffer said. “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.”

Research shows that communities with strong relationships and those that work on shared projects often fare better in the face of climate-related disasters than those that do not.

“All of this is helping us remember that we’re interconnected and that we can rely on each other,” said Vivian Santana Pacheco. “That’s the only way that we’re going to solve this climate crisis.”

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