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Affordable housing meets cutting-edge energy tech in MD's Fairmount Heights

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Monday, February 26, 2024   

By Kayla Benjamin for The Washington Informer.
Broadcast version by Brett Peveto for Maryland News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration

The second-oldest Black community in Prince George's County broke ground last week on a six-home development that centers around new energy technology. A combination of solar panels and energy-storing batteries will power a small subdivision in Fairmount Heights, and the development will run on a microgrid that shares energy between the homes and can continue running even when Pepco's wider system has outages.

Spearheaded by nonprofit Housing Initiative Partnership (HIP), Pepco, and renewable energy platform company BlockEnergy, the pilot project broke ground Oct. 13. Developers say they plan to complete the build by spring 2024, when HIP will market the single-family houses to first-time homebuyers earning 80 percent or less of area median income.

"We are building six zero-energy homes that are going to be affordable to first time homebuyers," said Stephanie Prange Proestel, HIP's deputy director, at the groundbreaking ceremony. "We are going to have clean, resilient, reliable energy for our homeowners that's going to be more affordable."

The term "zero energy" means that a home produces as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year. HIP has helped develop zero energy, affordable houses before, but the microgrid system is a new frontier for the nonprofit-and for the region.

"There are not a lot of these [microgrids] in Maryland, and particularly there are not a lot in communities that have been ignored for far too long, that have been underserved and overburdened," said Maryland Energy Administration Director Paul Pinsky. "A lot of these efforts and innovations over the last 20 to 25 years have been in the middle- and upper-middle class, and that's got to change."

The new subdivision sits where Fairmount Heights' original municipal building used to be. The project aims to celebrate the town's rich legacy with a historic marker and a neighborhood "pocket park" that will serve as the formal beginning of the Fairmount Heights Black history walking tour.

"We've got these two legacy institutions [the town of Fairmount Heights and HIP] that are coming together to do this really new and innovative thing and paving the way for more communities like this in Prince George's County," said Angie Rodgers, the county's deputy chief administrative officer for economic development. "You've got institutions that have been around forever but are still thinking about, how do we make our communities better? How do we be on the cutting edge?"

How It Works

The technology behind the microgrid comes from BlockEnergy, an energy platform company that works with utilities to provide power in this new form. The Fairmount Heights development will be the third BlockEnergy community in the world; the first two are in Florida and New Mexico.

Each of the houses will have its own solar panels and energy storage battery. All the homes are linked through an underground network and will automatically share power with one another, and with a bigger battery station that stores more energy and connects to Pepco's main power grid.

"We're basically reinventing the way that we get energy into communities, because we really haven't changed that fundamentally for over 100 years," said Rob Bennett, founder and CEO of BlockEnergy, in an interview.

Bennett and other stakeholders said they expect the system to produce and store enough energy to cover the community's typical household needs, but it also has the ability to draw on Pepco's main grid when more energy is needed.

Cool New Tech - Hefty Costs

Unsurprisingly, the battery and network technology for BlockEnergy's grids remains expensive. The individual homes' battery boxes, which resemble large A/C units, currently cost between $30,000 and $50,000 each, according to BlockEnergy's Vice President of Emerging Technology, Gary Oppedahl. Pepco bought the systems for Fairmount Heights.

The boxes are made mostly in the United States, Oppedahl said, in part to meet requirements for receiving federal clean energy incentives. He also emphasized that pilot projects often have high upfront costs, and that savings on fuel costs and maintenance can mean lower costs for utilities in the long run.

BlockEnergy leaders also say they expect costs will go down as the company scales up and similar technologies become more common.

"The systems in place today are very reliable, very good, very well tested and proven because we've been doing it that way for 100 years," Bennett, BlockEnergy's CEO, said. "So it's difficult to move away from that and adopt something new until it's proven that it really is the better way."

Pioneering a new energy system also added costs on the developers' side, with extra funding needed for the microgrid's planning and design, Prange Proestel, HIP's deputy director, said.

"It is something that really requires a nonprofit bundle together these different sources of funding, in order to do this demonstration project," said HIP Executive Director Maryann Dillon in an interview. "It's tough to make the numbers work when there's so few houses to spread the costs over."

The feasibility study and additional utility work also meant a longer timeline, which increases costs. HIP first bought the land from the town of Fairmount Heights in 2019. The town aims to earn certification under the statewide Sustainable Maryland program, which recognizes municipalities that make progress on green goals.

"This is a realization of a dream that we've had for quite a while," said former Fairmount Heights mayor Lillie Thompson Martin, under whose administration the project began. "This is the trend of the future... it's very important that we keep the stride going so that Fairmount Heights is not left out of the big picture."

Ownership and Energy Costs

Pepco will own and operate the network and the batteries, while a local community solar company will own the solar panels. That means the new residents will pay for their energy, rather than using it free and selling excess back to the grid the way traditional rooftop solar owners can.

However, it also means that any maintenance costs for the expensive tech-either the solar or the batteries-will not fall on the first-time homeowners.

"These are first-time low-income homeowners, and if there's a $200 problem with their own battery, they can't afford to get it fixed-and so suddenly there's no clean energy coming to their home," said Tony Ruffine, a renewable energy consultant working with BlockEnergy. "Instead, this is the utility's [battery]."

The whole system will have 262kWh of battery storage capacity, according to BlockEnergy, and 48kW worth of rooftop solar. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's solar output calculator estimates that a solar panel system of that size in Fairmount Heights would likely produce just over what six average households would need in a year. That doesn't account for the fact that these homes will be more energy-efficient than most.

"We put in a lot of green features to really make the housing affordable to whoever moves in, so they're not burdened by utility bills," said HIP Executive Director Maryann Dillon in an interview. "A key driver in making housing affordable is controlling your utility bills, and obviously it's the right thing to do with global warming."

Lowering Impact and Increasing Resilience

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, Pinsky, the director of the Maryland Energy Association, discussed how this project encompasses two key responses to climate change. On one hand, the high-efficiency homes are expected to produce enough solar energy to cover their usage-that means they avoid using additional fossil fuels that add planet-warming greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

At the same time, the microgrid offers a potentially more stable energy source as climate change increases the frequency of severe storms that often knockout traditional power lines. In the community using BlockEnergy technology for 37 houses in Tampa, the lights stayed on during Hurricane Ian even as more than 2 million Floridians lost power.

"The surrounding area was out of power for three or four days-the people in Southshore Bay [the Tampa mini-grid community] didn't even know there was a power outage," Bennett said. "They, I think, entertained a lot of their neighbors who didn't have power, who came over to charge phones and things."

"Because of climate change, natural disasters seem to be happening more and more," Bennett continued. "So it's important to have communities that can survive and stay safe and secure with electricity."

Kayla Benjamin wrote this article for The Washington Informer.

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