5.14.2018

[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]



The Case for Living Tiny
For years now, the Tiny House movement has been a Big Deal. It’s captured the imaginations of residential homeowners, city planners, international development agencies, homeless and affordable housing advocates, and the renewable energy/sustainable living community. It sparked the interest of a group of Energy and Resources Group (ERG) students back in 2014 when the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced the first-ever Tiny House Competition, soliciting applications from colleges and universities in California to design and build off-grid tiny houses for any specified end-use. This group, THIMBY 1, worked for two years to fundraise, research, design, and construct the first UC Berkeley tiny house, which won top awards at the SMUD competition for Water Conservation, Sustainability, Craftsmanship, and Home Life. Other teams in the competition included Laney College (which has a well-respected carpentry training program), Santa Clara University, and several Cal State campuses.



In the intervening years, the Laney College team has gone on to build several additional tiny houses to address the affordable housing crisis for the City of Oakland. A Berkeley project in the works from Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) proposes to build a Tiny House Village for homeless youth, with onsite resident advisors, social workers and jobs training, but is seeking Berkeley city government support with siting and permitting. The initial budget proposal to Berkeley City Council attaches an article published in the Richmond Confidential about THIMBY during the project planning phases, addressing the issue of tiny house legality and homeless housing. It remains unclear if such villages can take advantage of emergency housing policies, or if the residential period of intended users qualifies them for “traditional” residential permits and zoning. Despite lack of legal clarity, tiny houses for homeless and affordable housing are gaining momentum as a promising strategy favored by alliances of city governments, non-profits, and city planning researchers forming to address the housing crisis pummeling regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area. The ease and speed of assembly (especially when modular) combined with low cost and community-building benefits of tiny house villages make them an attractive alternative to larger apartment or condo complexes. Onsite energy generation and composting toilets, where permissible, further decrease the strain on existing city infrastructure.

Inside THIMBY 1
The design of THIMBY 1, built around the SMUD Tiny House Competition requirements, does not make this particular unit well suited for homeless housing. The combination of new energy technologies and off-grid water systems have required a fair bit of experimentation, energy expertise, and physical labor from the residents above and beyond what average housing residents would consider desirable. The cost of the energy systems alone would make this too expensive to build for scalable homeless housing. The tiny, sustainable, affordable housing challenge is something that the THIMBY 2 project will take on as part of its mission, as I discuss below.

I’ve had the good fortune of living in THIMBY 1 for the past several months. It’s been a series of up-and-down hurdles and learning experiences— perhaps ideal for a graduate student researcher passionate about experimenting with sustainable-living behavior changes, but a few kinks remain to be worked out in order to garner widespread appeal. The maintenance alone is significant even in such a small living space. This owes in part to the suite of innovative technologies integrated in the house, for which there is not yet a well-developed pipeline of customer support. The hours we’ve spent on the phone with SolarEdge and Tesla trying to get the inverter and battery to communicate to each other and function in both off-grid and on-grid settings, or tinkering with the Sanden CO2 heat pump to prevent it from thermo-siphoning could constitute several Master’s-level theses.


Our team continues to expand and evolve around tiny-house-related research. We’re developing a prototype of a Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) that will optimize solar generation, battery state of charge (SOC), and certain controllable loads to keep the house comfortable while using energy at optimal times (determined from weather forecasts and battery SOC). This new offshoot project, EMPOWER (Energy Management Producing Opportunities for Widespread Emissions Reduction), aims to launch a commercial product that will integrate with solar home systems and provide grid services by taking advantage of dynamic pricing and times of peak solar generation to use that energy directly for flexible loads within the home. The product is intended to save money for both electricity customers and utilities, and be affordable to low-income households.

Living in THIMBY 1 allows me to participate in both the renewable energy and data science worlds. From piloting off-grid technologies and lifestyle, to gathering data every 5 minutes on energy consumption and generation, we really are residents of a “living lab.” Tapping into the latest social media hashtag #reviewforscience, we joke about the common objects we’ve repurposed in the house for off-grid systems. Look out for a review on Hamilton Beach slow cookers that reads: “great for heating poop to the right temperature to deactivate pathogens after 30 minutes for safe composting. #ReviewforScience.”


Moving Forward with THIMBY 2




The THIMBY 1 pilot has generated a valuable set of lessons learned and experience with new technologies that will be useful in future implementations, whether on- or off-grid. Meanwhile, a whole new team of graduate and undergraduate students is forging ahead on the second iteration of the THIMBY project. From initial meetings and email blasts to departments soliciting student interest, almost 100 students replied, enough to form several side-by-side teams of student tiny house designers.  THIMBY 2 is partnered with the City of Richmond and Richmond BUILD to design and construct tiny houses to serve transitional homeless housing needs. Richmond BUILD is a construction training organization that works with minority populations and formerly incarcerated individuals to provide job training and placement in carpentry, contracting, and renewable energy positions. They will provide the building space and expertise for UC Berkeley students working alongside trainees on the design and construction elements. The Richmond Housing and Community Development department will provide connection to transitional housing groups that will also contribute to the design specifications, ultimate siting location and selection of residents for the future tiny house(s).

Partnerships like this are extremely promising examples of universities, city governments, and social organizations coming together to tackle pressing economic, social, and environmental challenges. Solving affordable housing dilemmas in a way that reduces residential energy footprints, advances the building energy transition needed to reverse climate change, and provides social and economic services to residents achieves a triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental benefit. While every location-specific context requires different considerations in terms of affordability and sustainability of tiny house construction, the sky’s the limit to the number of viable applications for tiny housing. From addressing homeless housing in Richmond to building for international contexts in Nairobi, students from the UC Berkeley/RAEL THIMBY team are thinking big about tiny living.




If you are interested in getting involved with the THIMBY 2 or future THIMBY projects, contact Shane Wright (shanebwright@berkeley.edu) and Laney Siegner (asiegner@berkeley.edu). 

5.08.2018

[Jack Chang, ERG graduate student]

 Spherical Cows on SurvivERG (Photo by E. Panzer) 

What do ERGies get up to when they’re not changing the world?

Believe it or not, they make the time amid research, classes and internships to perform contemporary dance, play the bassoon in the UC Berkeley campus orchestra and choreograph full-tilt Bollywood performances.

That’s at least what I gleaned from the Energy & Resources Group’s annual talent show, which filled Anthony Hall on April 18 with music and ERG alumni. The show also raised $1,740 for ERG’s Spherical Cow Funds in a silent auction that took bids for wine tastings, “insane” workout routines and Icelandic wool sweaters, among other prizes.

Highlights of the night included: Christopher Hyun’s hilarious karaoke-backed recap of his cohort’s research (Think “Chill those nuts” i.e. Kripa Jagannathan’s agriculture-themed quals subject to the tune of Katy Perry’s “California Girls”); Emeritus Professor Gene Rochlin’s moving poetry; John Dees’ set of, as he put it, variations of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; Will Gorman’s bassoon chops; contemporary dance by Samira Siddique, Alex Dolginow and Niklas Lollo; and the running SuvivERG skit featuring nearly the entire 2017 entering class.

With so many folks pitching in on food, auction items and performance planning, Yours Truly’s only line in the show, repeated about half a dozen time - “We’re all in it together” - captured the spirit both of the night and of the work everyone at ERG is committed to.

The night ended to the galloping strains of the Bollywood tune “Cutiepie,” matched by a 14-person ERG dance line led by Chris Hyun and Kripa Jagnnathan. On an otherwise chilly spring night, this annual ERG tradition kept the interdisciplinary flame burning another year.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 1: 
The audience meets the cast of SurvivERG
 

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 2:
 John Dees plays guitar.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 3
: John Dees plays guitar,
 and the SurvivERG contestants face their first challenge.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 4:
 Gene Rochlin performs spoken word,
 and the SurvivERG contestants grapple
 with an island crisis.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 5: 
Alex Dolginow, Nik Lollo, and Samira Siddique
 perform a modern art piece before the
 talent show enters an intermission.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 6:
 We return from intermission to see
 the SurvivERG contestants face another challenge
 and Chris Hyun leads a sing-along.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 7: 
Will Gorman plays bassoon, and the newbies
 come together to reflect on their island challenges.


ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 8:
 The Bollywood Dance!!


Thank you ERGies for yet another incredible year of the ERG Talent Show!

Related Posts

The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

2.12.2018

[Peter Worley, ERG graduate student]

Many of us at ERG wonder why there continues to be electricity waste and resource waste, despite available solutions. You can hear the aghast complaints around the lunch table: "Why don't people set back their thermostats?!", or "Why don't restaurants compost?!"

Design Thinking (or Design Innovation) is a helpful framework to assess the possible barriers to the solution. It inspects whether the solution is desirable, feasible, and viable. Failed 'solutions' often lack one of these attributes. It gets a different name when it is applied to different domains. When creating physical products, it is called Product Design; developing services - Service Design, presenting information - Visual Design, and shaping organizations - Enterprise Design.
Source: Capterra

This framework can also be helpful for tasks in graduate school less formidable than global sustainability, like applying for a grant, shaping a student organization, or teaching a class. We apply a type of Design Thinking when writing an NSF proposal. We apply Visual Design to tailor our essays for the end-user: the tired, overworked reviewer traveling on airplane.

But what is Design Thinking? Let's break this buzzword down. Design Thinking is an over-arching method for innovating or problem solving. The idea is to simultaneously consider an idea's desirability, feasibility, and viability. Desirability is the human desire for the solution because of its aesthetics, functionality, or ergonomics. Feasibility is that the idea is possible with current technology and regulations. Viability is that the solution can be implemented economically.  The focus on all three distinguishes this strategy from other approaches like 'technical solutions' or 'continuous improvement', which focus on just feasibility or miss desirability.

I've found that Design Thinking leads to more effective and elegant solutions. I first witnessed it when I took a capstone course in Product Design, manufacturing a bee hive monitoring device that was proposed to Shark Tank's initial screening. (Spoiler alert, we didn't get on the show.) I further saw Design Thinking's benefits during consulting when I helped create a custom rebate program for a utility and helping launch a website and digital tools for an energy efficiency start up.

Now, a primer on the actual methodology. I like to put it into three steps:

  1. Problem Framing  
  2. Divergent Thinking  
  3. Convergent Thinking

We'll use programmable thermostats as an example of how to use each step. It seems that until recent smart thermostats, even the most conscientious and skilled of us would rather keep our house heated constantly at 80 degrees than dare interface with that mean robot box that seemed to taunt any attempt at a change in temperature schedule.  



Problem Framing: 

First, the designer or problem solver must frame the problem that is to be solved. There are three sub-steps to framing the problem.

Identify and Empathize with End User 
The first and most fundamental step is identifying who the end-user is that has a need for a problem to be solved and putting yourself in her shoes. Hint, it is usually a human (though there is plenty of product design for cats). This is where you'll hear the term "Human Centered Design." This is the distinction that Design Thinking puts the problem in the frame of reference of the human end-user not in the frame of reference of the designer, the engineer, or the piece of technology.  
*Heads-Up* The end-user is not always the customer (e.g. kid's toys, dentist device) 
In our case, the end-user is the everyday inhabitant, Gertrude. She is not a dedicated environmentalist and not a computer coder. To empathize you think about the long days she has at work or the frustrating spontaneous errand days and the last thing she wants is for her house to be cold just to save a couple bucks on energy. Setting a thermostat schedule is so low on the chore list. 

Define the Problem
This is also known as "The Need." This is a very difficult step. It is the classic of identifying the disease not the symptom. In our case it is rather simple, Gertrude wants a comfortable house whenever she is home and to save energy when she is not, even with a capricious schedule.  

Establish Constraints
These are often broken down into the technological, the economical, the ergonomical, and the cultural. What is physically possible with current technology? We don't have technology yet that can read our minds and determine exactly when the temperature is too low or too high. What are the cost or lead time thresholds for the product? Most people aren't willing to spend $1,000 on a thermostat. What human physical limitations must we work within? It must be comfortable (physically or cognitively) to adjust temperature settings. And finally, what taboos or traditions should we be cognizant of? Design should probably avoid a fire-engine red to fit into the typical interior design of a house. 
*Heads Up* It seems counter-intuitive, but often we are more innovative when we are forced to work within constraints.

Divergent Thinking: create choices. 

This is where the classic brainstorming comes in. No thought showers. Serious, heavy brain storming.
*Heads Up* This step is ripe for a common mistake: shooting down brainstorm ideas. 
This is not the time for critique. We need to generate as many ideas as possible. Weird ones, too. Out-there ideas bring in aspects or relationship we wouldn't have otherwise imagined. The 'quality idea' at the end is a function of the quantity of ideas earlier.

When teammate Randy suggests the thermostat that should be a big lever that comes out of the wall with a stress ball at the end, hold back the giggle or sigh and write it down. On to the next idea. Randy's idea might inspire others to consider other ideas that only have one interface point.

Source: Astrid Baumgardner


Convergent Thinking: make choices.  

This is where you start paring down ideas.

You can use mind maps, decision matrices, and prototypes. The key here is to fail early and often. This is where you'll hear the term "rapid prototyping." *Heads Up* A common mistake is to invest too much into a prototype. First prototypes should look stupid - cardboard, pipe cleaners… childish. Often people pour too much time and resources into a prototype, which detracts from materializing other ideas. This makes the creator personally invested in that single prototype, often making them more defensive and less willing to consider other options.
Maybe to appease Randy you take a dowel rod and stuff a stress ball on the end and hold it next to the wall and show how this really won't fit well behind a couch or below a family painting.
In the end, if executed well, the Design Thinking process can lead to elegant and effective products like the new smart thermostats we see that can be adjusted by a smart phone app or have few minimal physical buttons to get confused over.




If you want to learn more about Design Thinking, the umbrella group on campus for Design Thinking is the Jacobs Institute. You can find info on student groups, classes, seminars, and tools there.  Another main resource is the D School at Stanford where much of Design Thinking originated from. You might even apply Design Thinking to your life! (Yep, you can take a class at Berkeley on it. Some ERGies are doing it this semester.)


Additional images from iMindMap and Alam and Shakil (2014).

2.06.2018

[Nick Depsky, ERG graduate student]



Welcome back for the second in a three part series about divestment from fossil fuels. To learn about divestiture in personal banking, check out the first installment here.

Besides personal banking, one of the most common ways in which people are invested in fossil fuels is via funds in retirement savings accounts (e.g. IRAs, 401k, 403b). I currently have a 403b account with Vanguard to which I accrued a small sum in my three years working in the non-profit sector following undergrad. I was disappointed to learn that many of the funds tied to my account were heavily invested in fossil fuel companies.  Large mutual funds and index funds are invested in everything, from big tobacco to Monsanto to fossil fuels. Their objective is to encapsulate and track the entire economy, using benchmarks like the S&P 500. However, recent research shows that performance of such fossil fuel-invested portfolios do not outperform those that are fully divested (Trinks et al 2018).

So, how does one find out where their money is invested?


  1. Find out which financial asset company manages your retirement account and the name of your plan
  2. Determine which funds comprise your plan. Mine was a blend of four different Vanguard index funds
  3. Review the fossil fuel holdings associated with each of these funds. You can look through huge, cluttered annual reports online or check out this beautiful tool built by the Oakland non-profit, As You Sow: Fossil Free Funds


Here’s a snapshot from FossilFreeFunds.org of one of the Vanguard funds from my retirement account:



We can see that 10.51% ($33bn) of the portfolio is in shares of companies in the global top 200 carbon-emitters, coal-fired utilities, the coal industry, fossil-fired utilities, or the oil/gas industry. You can filter by these categories individually to see the more detailed breakdown.


Alternative Mutual and Index Funds for Retirement

While many funds are tied up in fossil fuel holdings, there is an increasing number of companies that are offering sustainable funds as an option to investors and some that offer exclusively fossil-fuel free funds. One such example is Green Century Funds.





Green Century Funds has three funds it operates, totaling roughly $500m in holdings. Compare this to over $300bn in the single Vanguard fund above.  Another popular socially responsible fund is the Portfolio 21 Global Equity Fund (also ~$500m in holdings), which you can invest in via Trillium Mutual Funds.


A potential concern with these smaller index funds is greater volatility and slower growth compared to traditional index funds. However, both the Portfolio 21 Fund and Green Century Equity Fund have generally tracked their economy-wide benchmarks well.  Another consideration is that many of these funds do tend to have higher operating fees, known as ‘expense ratios.’ In the case of Green Century, this is due to their concerted efforts to be active shareholder advocates. Their non-profit structure also means that any accrued profit is distributed to the consortium of non-profit groups by which they were funded back in 1991.  Most of these groups are Public Interest Research Groups, including our state chapter, CALPIRG.

Here are five-year snapshots of growth for both the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund shown above and the Green Century Equity Fund:


Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund


Green Century Equity Fund


How to Switch to these Alternatives

Transferring funds from an existing 401k or 403b account into a traditional or Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is called a “rollover.” For tax and income reasons, the Roth IRA may be a better retirement investment option for younger, early-career individuals.

Here’s how you would initiate a rollover:
  1. Identify your IRA of choice
  2. Contact* the financial institution that currently manages your retirement account about their rollover policies and get the appropriate forms. Here's an example from Green Century.
  3. Go down the rabbit hole of the transfer process…
*code for calling and being put on hold for 5-300 minutes

In all seriousness, the transfer process can be completed in an afternoon. I hope this post shows that there are good long-term investment options available that don’t sacrifice your financial future nor the health of the planet by supporting fossil fuels. For a big breakdown of socially responsible funds across metrics than beyond fossil fuels, check out the Wikipedia page on Socially Responsible Investing. Remember to supplement these tips with your own research or conversations with a financial advisor.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment in this series where Nick will discuss stocks, institutional divestment and community activism.

1.22.2018

[Nick Depsky, ERG graduate student]


Do you feel powerless in the face of climate change? Do you have money in a major bank? Do you own any stocks? What about that retirement account you forgot about from a previous employer? Are you confused by the massive, opaque financial world but acknowledge the need to save for boba tea and multiple pairs of socks? Maybe you want to know how your money can be used to take a tiny bit of power away from the fossil fuel industry and reinvested in better alternatives.

If you answered “YES” to any of the above questions, I encourage you to read this post. You may become inspired, as I have, to personally divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in better alternatives.

Why Divest?


It’s true that the most impactful acts of divestment would be from large institutions and corporations, rather than from starving grad students paying a million dollars a month for a leaky little apartment room in the Bay Area. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t still wield what money you have to cast a real financial vote of indignation against the fossil fuel industry, symbolic though it may feel.

Maybe you’ve had the same thought that I’ve had in the past: “I don’t have enough money to make any kind of a difference to Chase Bank or Wells Fargo.” But I think it helps to think of your money as a form of voting. Those of us who are compelled to vote for people and policies we support should be equally compelled to align our financial assets with those ideals, regardless of how insignificant a single vote may feel in a culture that under-values voting.

Collective divestment really can make a difference. The campaign to divest from South Africa in the 80s contributed to dismantling formal apartheid, and we are starting to see a similar swell organize around fossil fuels. Besides taking money out of the hands of industry players whose actions we oppose, divestment also erodes the political and social capital upon which these industries rely to lobby and continue operating.

Major Banks


Beyond being complicit in long-standing predatory lending and discriminatory lending practices, major banks and financial institutions have also invested billions in fossil fuel industries, financing tar sands, pipelines, and arctic and deep-water drilling.  JP Morgan Chase (Chase Bank) sinks roughly seven billion dollars a year into such endeavors, with Bank of America and Citibank each investing between four and five billion annually.  Wells Fargo’s annual investments come in around one to two billion dollars.  The full rankings of banks’ contributions to fossil fuels by industry type can be seen via this tool maintained by the Rainforest Action Network.

Total financing of fossil fuels by year (source: Rainforest Action Network)

Previously, I had my entire savings in Wells Fargo, and while they contribute comparatively smaller amounts to fossil fuels than some other banks, they have also shown a tendency to disregard the law in terms of both predatory lending and opening of fraudulent accounts in the years following the 2008 crash, a practice for which they were eventually fined $185 million last year (a whopping 0.2% of their 2016 revenue).

Alternatives to Major Banks


Credit Unions:
Switching over to a credit union is a good bet, since they are not-for-profit institutions by their nature.  However, some credit unions are intertwined with large banks and the fossil fuel industry in obvious ways, and in some ways that I still don’t totally understand. Credit unions are not all equal. Make sure their practices align with your values. Generally speaking, going with a local credit union that is community-focused is a solid choice, though it might still be worth chatting with a representative about what varieties of loans they issue.  Here are some local credit unions I’ve been recommended:


This list is non-exhaustive and there are many more.  All of the institutions above are equal housing opportunity lenders. 

Values-Oriented Banks:
I switched over to a mission-oriented bank rather than a credit union. I like the fact that they are an example of a successful triple bottom line banking institution (B-corps certified) that actively funds a wide array of socially-conscious sectors.  I found two candidates in the Bay Area and chatted with representatives from each to find out more information.  Here’s what I learned:


Beneficial State Bank New Resource Bank
0% fossil fuel investment
Branches California, Pacific Northwest
Closest: Downtown Oakland
San Francisco only
Non-profit foundation All profits dispersed in forms of grants or loans to communities All profits dispersed in forms of grants or loans to communities
Housing lending Directly lends to affordable multi-family housing No direct housing lending, but invests in construction of affordable units
ATM Networks MoneyPass (US Bank, Mechanics Bank, Atlantic Credit Union) & All Point Network (inside big retailers like Walgreens, CVS) STAR & MoneyPass 
Credit cards In-house Visa credit cards starting 2018
Currently partners with various non-profits (i.e. Sierra Club) to offer cards to clients
Does not offer credit cards, but partners with a credit-union credit card agency 
Targeted lending sectors Affordable Housing
Multi-Family
Sustainable Food and Agriculture
Green Energy
Rural Communities
Minority-Owned Businesses
Sustainable Business
Green Real Estate
Nonprofits
Organic & Natural Products
Clean Energy




Interest Rates


I looked into interest rates on savings and checking accounts for Beneficial State Bank and New Resource Bank, and compared them to Wells Fargo.  Beneficial seems to have the best interest rates for small accounts out of all three; Wells Fargo comes in last.  Beneficial also had the lowest minimum ($1,000) requirement to open a certificate deposit (CD) account, compared to $2,500 for Wells Fargo and $25,000 for New Resource.

Here is a snapshot from an investment infographic from New Resource Bank:


New Resource’s index of “Real Economy Assets”  illustrates their departure from the policies of big banks that typically have their money tied up in the financial economy instead of community investments. Beneficial State Bank has a similar “Real Economy Assets” figure of roughly 80%.



In the end, I decided to go with Beneficial because of geographic advantages.  Their nearest office is in Oakland rather than San Francisco. And they have locations in Los Angeles, so I can tell my friends down there to switch over.  Both New Resource and Beneficial seem like great options, and I would encourage you to get in touch with them yourself if you’re thinking of switching.


Stay tuned for the next installment of this three-part series, where Nick looks at retirement accounts mutual funds. 
 
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