Recovery and Resilience Takes a Village

Part 2 – Exploring Collaboration in Electrification Planning

How Local Governments are Collaborating Across Boundaries, Agencies, and Sectors to Act on Climate Change

With thanks to Angie Hacker and John Vandervort for researching and writing this piece for CURRENTS.

In January, we released the first article in a 3-part series that explores how collaborations across agencies, sectors, and jurisdictional boundaries can help local governments achieve their energy and climate goals. And as disruptions from the pandemic, the economy, and the climate continue to make resilience more necessary — and more challenging — it’s more important than ever for local governments and their partners to work together strategically. So in this second article, we evaluate another type of initiative that benefits from cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration: electrification. 

In the US, the built environment is responsible for producing over a quarter of GHG emissions (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions). Many local governments are tackling these emissions by planning for the electrification of new and existing buildings. An electrification plan is how the government plans to do so, with tools like retrofit programs, ordinances, and community education and outreach.  

We explore this topic in two ways below. First, we share the results of a Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition (LGSEC) workshop activity, which asked participants to define the roles of various stakeholders. Then we explore a real-life example — a building electrification project in the City of Berkeley — to understand the roles that various stakeholders actually played.

Fictitious Example: County of Nogaso (LGSEC Workshop Results)

The prompt for the October 28, 2021 LGSEC Workshop discussion was the following fictitious scenario:

City of Nogaso is an urban community with significant emissions from its building sector. As community interest in electrification mounts, the City conducts an analysis that shows  it will not achieve emission reduction goals unless it moves to all-electric buildings. The Council directs staff to create an electrification plan to equitably electrify both new and existing buildings. 

For this scenario, participants matched the following roles with the following partners: 

The conclusions we can draw from this are limited, as the views expressed are only those of a few participants. Nonetheless, a clear pattern regarding the division of roles and responsibilities did emerge. 

  • To avoid losing sight of equity in electrification, engage trusted CBOs and NGOs with established connections to marginalized groups early in the process. CBOs and NGOs are key to successful and inclusive community engagement, and they need to be compensated to actively participate in this process. 
  • Local governments are essential to furthering building electrification and decarbonization efforts. In the report-out, participants suggested that electrification plans be led by local governments with the involvement of other stakeholders — like IOUs, subject matter experts, and CBOs — to ensure the plan and process is accountable to the people it serves. 

Cross-sectoral partnerships are essential in ensuring this work is funded and implemented effectively. Local governments are not able to fund this work independently and, thus, must look for financial support from the private sector, as well as federal and state agencies.

Real Local Example: City of Berkeley Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy

Now let’s see how stakeholders collaborated to develop a real-life electrification plan at the City of Berkeley.

Project description

The City of Berkeley’s Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy builds upon its prior leadership, which includes a 2020 Climate Action Plan; joining the East Bay Community Energy CCA; creating a fossil-free goal; prohibiting natural gas in new construction; and implementing programs such as the Building Emissions Saving Ordinance (BESO), which requires that Berkeley building owners complete energy efficiency opportunity assessments and report the building’s energy efficiency information at time-of-sale.

Equitably electrifying the City’s existing buildings — and identifying the right partnerships for this program — was a challenge. The majority of the housing stock in the City of Berkeley was built before the 1960s, with a significant portion built in, or before, the 1920s. This ensured a number of barriers to retrofitting the current housing stock, such as poor envelope insulation; leaky or unreliable HVAC ducts; lower capacity electric panels; and the persistent presence of asbestos. These issues largely prohibited the development of a “one-size-fits-all” approach and forced electrification efforts to be made on a building-by-building basis. The City is one of the first to pursue this type of plan.

The purpose of Berkeley’s Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy is to analyze the existing building stock of the City — with a focus on low-rise residential, the most common type of building in the City — and identify a pathway for an equitable transition to electrification. The City developed its strategy in partnership with a number of organizations, in order to ensure that electrification efforts remained beneficial to all community members, with a specific focus on disadvantaged communities. This included an extensive process of soliciting community feedback on the electrification strategy, and distilling that feedback into foundational equity principles or “guardrails”. These equity guardrails provided minimum standards for any proposed electrification strategy or policy to be considered for implementation. 

The Strategy’s approach to building electrification includes three phases, each consisting of specific actions and policies meant to ensure a transition of the City’s existing building stock by 2045. The early phases of this strategy, which span from 2021 to 2025, include implementation strategies, such as electrification incentives and voluntary electrification programs. The later stages of this strategy, spanning from 2025 to 2045, include more comprehensive measures, such as holistic funding and financing programs, as well as mandatory electrification requirements for the entirety of the building stock. The structural framework for the City’s electrification strategies are shown below.

Collaborators and roles 
  • City of Berkeley: In 2018, the City of Berkeley established a goal of being completely fossil fuel free as soon as possible (City Council, June 12, 2018). Katie Van Dyke, with the City, shares that early steps in this building electrification effort included working with the Ecology Center, a trusted community partner, to cultivate trust with historically marginalized communities through targeted community engagement. The City also convened more traditional engagement activities, such as public meetings, a survey, and a technical advisory committee, to facilitate community input.
  • Rincon Consultants: Rincon Consultants a multi-disciplinary environmental sciences, planning, and engineering consulting firm managed the consultant team and developed the report. 
  • The Ecology Center: The Ecology Center is a long-standing, connected, and trusted nonprofit organization in Berkeley that focuses on improving the health and environmental impacts of urban residents. The Ecology Center led the community engagement component of the City’s building electrification strategy, and was essential in developing the project’s four equity guardrails. Their work ensured that  outreach was intentionally focused on frontline and marginalized communities that are often not engaged in government planning.  
  • Rocky Mountain Institute: RMI is an independent, non-partisan, cross-disciplinary nonprofit working to accelerate a clean energy transition. RMI primarily assisted the City of Berkeley with conducting the technical electrification cost and savings modeling data analysis for homeowners, inclusive of incentives. Through this modeling, RMI identified common trends throughout the City of Berkeley such as: solar installation dramatically improving the economics of building electrification; building envelope improvements lacking the expected financial payback even though they are desirable to residents for other reasons; and paybacks taking a longer period of time for multifamily housing, which has significant equity implications.
  • Building Electrification Institute: BEI began as a collaboration between several cities working through the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA). BEI conducted the initial building stock analysis that identified the health, resiliency, and affordability needs of Berkeley’s buildings. BEI also evaluated and mapped the current socioeconomic disparities within the City and assessed the history of housing and land use policies that have contributed to these disparities. Additionally, BEI provided guidance on how to advance high road jobs, with support from Inclusive Economics, and additional equity consulting with Upright Consulting.
  • Utility Partners: 
    • Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the local investor-owned utility that provides natural gas and delivers and bills for electricity, supported the requirement for all-electric new construction. 
    • East Bay Community Energy (EBCE), the local CCA that provides 100% renewable energy to most customers in Berkeley, advised and provided technical services and rebates for electrification measures, and hosted programs to help low-income residents increase their energy efficiency and transition to clean electricity. 
    • BayREN, the regional energy efficiency and electrification resource agency funded by rate-payer dollars, provided rebates, workforce development, and training, and assisted in the development of energy reach codes.
  • Equity Partners: The City engaged with over two dozen community-based organizations serving low-income communities and communities of color, including the Berkeley Black Ecumenical Ministerial Alliance (BBEMA), affordable housing providers, workforce development programs, trade unions, the Berkeley Rent Board, organizations serving the disabled community, and the Greenlining Institute. The Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit committed to building a just economy, developed a  5-step Equitable Building Electrification Framework that was used as a guide to ensure the engagement process was equitable, and supported community goals.
  • Technical Advisors: In addition to targeted community outreach, the project team also engaged with over 100 local technical experts, contractors, and policy experts to inform cost and energy modeling assumptions, pinpoint the key challenges and opportunities facing community-wide electrification, and identify solutions.

Applying an equity approach to the electrification of existing buildings means that all people must have affordable access to the health, comfort, economic and resilience benefits of building electrification – but that low-income and other marginalized communities and communities most impacted by climate change should be prioritized. This requires intentionally lifting voices and needs of those who are usually not represented in policy development, and redesigning policies that don’t specifically benefit marginalized communities, even if it upends a preconceived goal.” – (City of Berkeley Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy Executive Summary)

Community engagement is something that cannot be started early enough. We as local governments have a lot of trust to rebuild for all the historic inequities that have happened. Understanding who are your marginalized communities, starting conversations, building relationships, understanding who are the organizations that represent those communities, and who are the leaders that you can start connecting with… that’s all work that can and should happen immediately and with an equity focus.” – Katie Van Dyke, Climate Action Program Manager and Chief Resilience Officer with the City of Berkeley (CCEC Forum Webinar on Planning for Equitable Existing Building Electrification)

We were specifically identifying and leading outreach and engagement for this project, holding both equity and building community relationships as core priorities… That’s what we had to keep at the forefront of this entire approach. The goal was to really engage frontline, marginalized, disadvantaged, BIPOC, and low-income communities, while very specifically being intentional about not just engaging with who the City, or who governments, traditionally reach out to. While that information and feedback is valuable, to truly do this equitably, we need to make sure we are targeting, and going out to, the communities that are traditionally excluded from these conversations.” – Denaya Shorter, Community Engagement Program Director at the Ecology Center (CCEC Forum Webinar on Planning for Equitable Existing Building Electrification)

A comprehensive building electrification planning effort, like the City of Berkeley’s, is not possible without a commitment to substantial and inclusive cross-sector collaboration. While local governments are vital for developing plans and strategies, and enforcing codes and regulations, community-based organizations can help ensure that equity shapes the planning and implementation stages of a project, by leveraging their ability to engage with marginalized communities (work they should be compensated for). And local governments often need external funding and assistance to conduct comprehensive data collection and analysis, and thus can benefit greatly from collaborating with utility providers, non-governmental organizations, private sector companies, or consultants to complete this work.

Stay tuned for the final paper in this series, which will explore how local governments are leveraging regional climate collaboratives to meet their shared goals. It will also summarize key learnings, themes, and relevant literature about the role local government is uniquely suited to play, among other stakeholders, in energy and climate initiatives.