Facebook’s hometown of Menlo Park, California, has struck a deal to decarbonize 95% of its buildings by 2030, replacing the city’s fossil-fuel infrastructure with climate-friendly heat pumps, solar panels and electric car chargers.
The wealthy Silicon Valley enclave on Wednesday announced a partnership with BlocPower, a New York-based company that, in founder Donnel Baird’s words, “turns buildings into Teslas.” In New York City, the startup coordinates and finances retrofits of apartment buildings, replacing natural-gas and oil boilers with high-efficiency heat pumps and solar panels. BlocPower has focused on low-income communities and last year the city of Ithaca, New York, chose the company to lead an initiative to decarbonize its building stock.
The agreement with Menlo Park marks BlocPower’s expansion to the West Coast and could serve as a model to ramp up efforts to electrify buildings while ensuring that low-income neighborhoods are not left out of such programs.
“We have to make sure that we do this in such a way that we don’t strand low-income households on an aging and underutilized gas network,” said Sam Calisch, head of special projects for Rewiring America, a California nonprofit that promotes home electrification. “The folks at BlocPower know this very well and have that as core to their mission.”
Although median household income in Menlo Park approaches $200,000 and the median home sales price was $3.2 million in May, the city includes a lower-income neighborhood called Belle Haven, wedged between a ring of freeways and the San Francisco Bay near the headquarters of Meta Platforms Inc., Facebook’s parent company.
“We have low-interest-rate capital that we can use for Menlo Park residents who don’t have their own resources to finance upgrades,” said Baird, BlocPower’s chief executive officer. “We have to come up with plans and proposals and implementation for clean energy that leads with equity or we won’t have an effective clean energy policy.”
A nonprofit called Menlo Spark is working with the city to raise up to $35 million to help finance installation of heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, battery storage, solar panels, electric car chargers and other clean energy improvements for low- and moderate-income families in the city of 32,500 people.
Buildings account for 41% of Menlo Park’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The new voluntary program aims to decarbonize more than 10,000 structures by the end of the decade, according to the city. While Menlo Park and a growing number of cities across the country have banned natural gas in new construction (Facebook already powers its campus with renewable energy), significant hurdles remain to electrification of existing homes.
“We have lots of people who are interested in electrification,” said Menlo Park Mayor Betsy Nash, who noted that the city obtains all its electricity from carbon-free sources. “But it’s actually very hard to get the attention of a contractor, to navigate your way through the various incentive programs and to figure out exactly what equipment to install. That’s where BlocPower brings all of this together for us.”
BlocPower will first form an advisory board of residents and local leaders to help organize the initiative and roll it out to the community. Once the program is launched, residents enter their address on BlocPower’s website and answer a series of questions about their building.
The company’s proprietary software will analyze a structure’s energy use and create a decarbonization plan. “We simulate the physics of how they use and consume and waste fossil fuels per square foot, and what kind of building decarbonization hardware and software will make sense for each and every building in Menlo Park,” said Baird. The Bezos Earth Fund is financing that work.
“And then if they’re interested, we’re going to connect them to a cohort of woman- and minority- and veteran-owned green construction companies,” he added, “to help residents to decarbonize their homes and schools, and community buildings.” Baird said BlocPower will work with local partners to train installers to do the retrofits.
The program is targeting 15 buildings for retrofits in 2022, 100 in 2023 and at least 1,000 conversions from 2024 on.
Rewiring America’s Calisch said such an integrated approach should be adopted by other cities. “That’s exactly what we need to be shooting for, to demonstrate not only the benefits that electrification provides to households, but also to be on track to meet our aggressive climate goals.”