UC Berkeley adjunct professor introduces alternative power source for local neighborhoods

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In response to last week’s PG&E safety blackouts, campus adjunct professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and director in the California Institute for Energy and Environment’s Electric Grid program area, Alexandra von Meier, said transitioning to neighborhood-sourced power would create a more reliable electric grid.

The EcoBlock project would develop stand-alone microgrids of electrical generation and storage to be shared on a city block level, according to Berkeley News. The EcoBlock project is primarily funded by the California Energy Commission and aims to show the benefits of using economies of scale to produce environmentally friendly infrastructure. Von Meier serves as a principal investigator for the project, which develops a microgrid that can provide power during blackouts such as the PG&E outage.

The EcoBlock project is expected to take four years, beginning in September 2019 and concluding in August 2023, according to the EcoBlock website. In the first year, the EcoBlock project will recruit participants and conduct water and energy reviews of buildings. In the second year, construction designs will be developed and permits will be obtained.

The following year, microgrids will be installed and energy improvements will be conducted. Finally, the EcoBlock project will be reviewed and a guidebook will be created to develop other EcoBlocks.

According to the website, a microgrid is a miniature electrical system that includes a micro power plant, electrical cables and appliances that consume this energy. In a situation where normal utility power is disrupted, microgrids can supply power to connected homes.

The Berkeley power outage was an effort by PG&E to mitigate the risk of active transmission lines that could spark a wildfire, according to Berkeley News. The city’s power comes from transmission lines that pass through the East Bay Hills, where the wildfire danger is, von Meier said.

While the EcoBlock project would not end outages, it aims to retrofit neighborhood blocks with shared energy storage to lessen the impact of the outage, according to von Meier.

“The idea is that with shared energy storage, a community will have the resources to provide for the most important needs, even during an extended power outage,” von Meier said in an email.

More specifically, the project covers energy and water efficiency retrofits, solar electric photovoltaic, or PV, panels, neighborhood-shared energy storage, shared electric vehicle charging stations and direct current microgrids across multiple residential buildings, according to the website.

While microgrids and similar technologies, such as backup generators, currently exist for airports and hospitals, the EcoBlock project introduces them for residential neighborhoods.

“Having the ability for communities to be locally resilient and sustainable makes a big difference,” von Meier said in an interview with Berkeley News.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.