Race to Rewire California will Happen One Neighborhood at a Time

By Lauren Williams
December 1, 2017, Orange County Register

Some families boil water; others turn on the oven.

Still, whatever heat they manage to churn up dissipates quickly, slipping out through thin walls and single-pane windows built decades ago for the homes and apartments in Huntington Beachís Oak View neighborhood.

Usually in this sunny, Southern California community, the hurdle is staying cool. But that, too, is made difficult by poor insulation and so-so construction. Itís a common problem. Lower income housing is often energy inefficient. Poor neighborhoods lack plants and greenbelts, a factor that can affect cooling. And they often have fewer trees, meaning less shade and, on hot days, more need for air conditioning.

Soon, however, that might change.

Scientists and community activists connected to UC Irvine and other California schools have been working on plans to improve energy efficiency in Oak View and some other low-income neighborhoods in the Southern California area. The UCI team is talking about better insulation and weather proofing. They want to bring in new windows and working appliances; even solar panels.

And they plan to do all this without pricing residents out of their homes.

"I hope weíre enabled to make a difference," said UC Irvine engineering professor Jack Brouwer, who is leading the team planning to retrofit Oak View, one of a dozen similar teams working on competing plans to transform existing cities and farms into emission free zones that can be replicated throughout California.

The government-funded competition is a small part of the sweeping push to meet a state law calling for Californiaís greenhouse gas emissions to return to 1990 levels by 2020.

But in Oak View, residents were leery. Before Brouwer and his crew started to come around, and look at the streets and inside the apartments, people in the neighborhood had heard other lofty promises of revitalization, only to have shoddy work done and rents dramatically raised.

"I was very alarmed," said Victor Valladares, co-founder of CommUnidad, an advocacy group in Oak View. Valladares said the fear in Oak View is something that might come up a lot in coming years: "Environmental gentrification."

Green Money

The mile-square Oak View neighborhood is made up mostly of apartments with a handful of single family homes.

Itís also an island of sorts.

In a county with a 3.3 percent unemployment rate, only about 48 percent of Oak View residents older than 16 have a job, according to data provided by the city. Likewise, per capita income in Oak View is $16,700, less than half the per capita income countywide.

Rent, however, isnít cheap, about $1,600 a month on average. That often pushes multiple families to share single apartments, said Valladares, who also sits on the board of the Orange County Community Housing Corp.

The money squeeze in Oak View can limit home improvements, even little things. When light bulbs burn out, for example, residents often replace them with incandescent bulbs, skipping more energy efficient LED lights. Ironically, the choice isnít cheaper; incandescent bulbs are less expensive to purchase but cost more over time than LED bulbs.

Another issue is fear. Oak View residents are reluctant to ask landlords to perform routine repairs when appliances or windows break. Such improvements, Valladares said, often mean higher rents.

The combination of factors has created a community that consumes — and inadvertently wastes — a lot of energy.

Thatís where Brouwer and his team come in.

His dreams arenít small. Not only does Brouwer envision Oak View getting solar power, he also wants to see the neighborhood use new technology that stores solar energy as hydrogen. He wants to capture gases from the neighborhood dump for use as energy. Heíd even like to see energy efficiency to become a micro-industry, providing some residents with jobs, easier transportation and lower utility bills.

"I really have been moved by members of the community who have described what itís like living there," Brouwer said.

"We think our advanced energy project, when we build it, could involve some education of members of the community and give them jobs for doing this. They could have advanced energy careers."

Not Ground Zero

When envisioning a zero-emission community, itís easy to imagine starting from scratch, simply using new technology from the ground up.

The mission for Brouwer and his team is different. Theyíre drawing up plans to take existing infrastructure — power lines, transformers, thin walls and all — and transform it into a zero emission makeover that can be duplicated in other neighborhoods.

"Itís designed to be scalable and replicable," said Lisa Alexander, vice president of customer solutions and communications for SoCalGas which is helping to fund the research on the Oak View project.

"Beyond that, (the project) is designed to be inspirational," she added.

"(It) shows what is possible to solve climate change issues."

Existing buildings contribute about 40 percent of all energy used in California. And in Southern California, about 63 percent of all houses and apartments were built before 1980. So for the state to hit its ambitious 1990-by-2020 climate change goal, energy efficiency in existing buildings needs to dramatically improve.

To that end the California Energy Commission held a competition and awarded 12 groups with grants to map out a near net zero emission community.

Not all of the plans are aimed at housing. Russell Teall is among the awardees, and the only one focused on creating a zero-emission farm. Heís looking specifically at ways to retrofit a 1,300-acre Central Valley farm that grows almonds, grapes, tomatoes and onions.

"The idea is to make a farm totally energy and fuel self sufficient," said Teall, the president and founder of the Ventura-based biofuel company Biodico.

With some 25 million cultivated acres in California, Teall believes his model could be duplicated throughout the state.

"This project can be replicated 19,000 times," Teall said. "Thatís the scale."

His idea centers on what he calls "agriculture appropriate" technology. Where other plans to boost efficiency on farms have plotted out solar panels that block sunlight from crops, or wind turbines that kill critical birds, Teallís calls for a shielded "wind scoop" that would funnel air to a cordoned-off turbine that, in turn, would create energy for the farm.

"ItísÖ more of a farm-oriented structure," Teall said of his project.

Itís unclear if it will ever be built.

Teall and Brouwer and the other teams are scheduled to present their plans to state officials in March. After that, one of the teams will be awarded $16 million to turn their plan into a reality.

The Oak View plan is comprehensive, and energy efficiency would go far beyond insulation.

For example, one idea is to install an affordable car rental system involving a fleet of zero-emission vehicles that would be powered by a solar carport. With access to affordable, energy-efficient transportation, residents could save money by traveling farther away to buy bulk groceries, rather than by buying small, expensive items at the corner market.

But some of the new ideas arenít so intricate, and theyíve come from the residents themselves.

After talking with people in the neighborhoods, Brouwerís team heard from long-time residents who said there used to be trees in the area, but theyíd been chopped down decades earlier.

Planting saplings would lower temperatures on sidewalks, for the mostly pedestrian residents, and inside homes by reducing the heat thatís currently reflected directly into buildings.

"Thatís a totally legitimate, energy saving idea," Brouwer said.

"NowÖ thatís in our planÖ. (We) wouldnít have come up with that idea if we didnít talk with them. Our research is benefiting from their communication with us."