Introducing the Resiliency Center

8 min read

Power During Outages to Enable a Healthy Life

For most of us, a power outage is an inconvenience. We may have to use flashlights, we may sweat or have to put on jackets, depending on the season, and we don’t open the refrigerator. If it lasts for more than a day or two, we might be tempted to check into a local hotel or camp out at a friend’s or relative’s place. But for the poor, the elderly, the chronically ill or infirm who either have no place to go or can’t easily move around, or who are dependent on refrigerated medication, a power outage becomes a crisis; perhaps even a life-threatening one.

An innovative program in Washington, DC is one of the first forays into addressing this challenge.

Jubilee Housing, a 45-year-old nonprofit whose “justice through housing” mantra points to the mission to “build diverse, compassionate communities that create opportunities for everyone to thrive,” has teamed up with the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco), New Partners Community Solar and the District of Columbia Department of Energy to launch the city’s first affordable housing resiliency center at the Maycroft Apartments on Columbia Road in the Adams Morgan section. Maycroft contains 64 “deeply affordable” apartment units, 41 of which are occupied by families at or below 30 percent of area median income.

The resiliency center is a suite of rooms available to all residents on the building’s first floor that will have power for refrigeration of medication and perishable food, lighting, outlets for charging cell phones and other communications devices and a television. This power will last for three days at a time if necessary and is provided by a 70.2-kilowatt rooftop solar array that will feed a robust series of storage batteries. The battery array was funded through a $60,000 grant from Pepco, which is considering the resiliency center a local and national model.

“We wanted to bring a package of benefits to under-resourced communities,” Pepco regional president Donna Cooper declared at the center’s launch on May 1. “It takes many parties to bring about change and to be responsive to the issues we’re all facing. This is the first of its kind in DC for residential and we have to be able to replicate it across the district. It will take bold action by many – government, the private sector, community leaders. But I love the concept of justice housing.” She called energy storage in batteries a “game changer.”

Making Use of the Roof
New Partners Community Solar was founded in 2017 by Herbert F. Stevens and Jeffrey S.  Lesk, two partners in the Washington office of the international Nixon Peabody law firm. The firm had recently moved into new office space in a building with a large, flat roof expanse. Being among the first tenants and taking three floors of the 15-story building, Nixon Peabody had some leverage negotiating its lease. As one of the provisions, they asked for, and were given the right, to use part of the building’s roof to install a solar array. The landlord “donated” two other rooftops because it had no other profitable use for them. The 180 kilowatts generated from these three arrays was directed to affordable housing projects in the city. Lesk calls it “environmental justice.”

“First, we wanted to have the greenest space possible.

And we practice community development and have a strong sustainability practice,” he says. “We wanted a green overlay to affordable housing and work it into community development programs. DC is the first LEED Platinum city in the world.

“It wouldn’t make a big financial difference to us, but I saw it could be used more robustly with people who needed the benefits. The sun is a resource that ought to be shared with everybody. This was a passion project for Herb and me and the firm has been very supportive. It’s actually all about accounting. The energy going through the NP Solar account at Pepco gives us credits. We donate those credits to affordable housing tenants.

“This kind of arrangement offers people the opportunity to direct energy to places that are meaningful to them. The flexibility of Community Solar is tremendous, and the response from a lot of organizations and nonprofits has been overwhelmingly positive.”

“The concept of resiliency has been important for about the last five years,” Stevens says. “Hurricane Sandy [2012] affected thousands. The flooding drove it home – these people had nowhere to go. Something needed to be done. Jeff and I wanted to help, so we had to develop energy and electrical literacy. And it was important to build Pepco into the partnership. They had the reach to do something they’ve never done before.”

“Jeff and Herb are visionaries,” says Tommy Wells, director of the DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) and a former city council member. One of the reasons Wells and his department are so focused on energy resilience is because climate change is causing more severe weather events. “It’s pretty scary to think what climate change is doing. Our infrastructure is at risk and we have to plan. When I heard about this battery project, I said, ‘That is brilliant!’” Wells arranged a DOEE Solar for All Innovation grant that Lesk feels “will move the needle in important ways.” He also mentions Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal of having the city carbon neutral by 2050.

Resilience Housing
Maycroft is one of ten buildings, comprising 300 residential units in a four-block area that Jubilee owns and manages. “This is resilience housing: resilient in the face of stress from a market that is displacing these people; a high-opportunity neighborhood, with schools, transportation and retail. We offer on-site support for residents – resources for life, from birth to career launch,” President and Executive Director Jim Knight explains.

“We face a crisis in trying to be resilient to residents who grew up here but can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Wells. “Jubilee reflects the values we all share.”

Among its services, Jubilee has a year-long program for individuals returning from prison. They are put up in group townhouses and some of the value of the energy savings is directed toward accounts for them to get a fresh start.

As Martin Mellett, Jubilee’s vice president for strategic initiatives describes the aim, “We believe in resident centricity. How do we make our residents stronger, increase their income and lower their expenses? We are part of the built environment, so we want to be part of the solution. Jubilee tends to like to be guinea pigs.”

Cooper says solar production cuts energy costs in half.

But the directed solar energy was only half the battle. “We still needed to incorporate batteries in our whole solar equation,” Lesk says.

The Maycroft pilot project incorporates 16 sequentially connected batteries producing 56 kilowatt hours of power. Mellett notes that the development and installation costs go into the basis for LIHTC accounting. The batteries are projected for a 20-year life, after which it is anticipated that new and more efficient energy storage technologies will be available.

Batteries Are the New Frontier
Battery development has always been among the thorniest aspects of electrical engineering, as witnessed by the myriad challenges and delays in bringing all-electric vehicles to market. And their range is still severely limited by battery technology. There were equal challenges in introducing a battery component to residential solar energy generation. “There was the physical space for the batteries and wiring, the cost, the engineering and design, and the personal initiative to get it all done,” Mellett enumerates.

“Batteries are the new frontier,” proclaims Pranay Kohli, CEO of Amidus Consulting, which worked on the project. “We have the community solar power, the regular power source and the standby generator. Micro-converters on the roof convert AC to DC (alternating current to direct current), and then convert DC to AC to power the resiliency center. All of these energy flows took us some time to develop. And we built a lot of monitoring into the system.”

“It involves cutting off the regular system and diverting to the new system in the event of an outage,” Lesk adds. “There were a lot of decisions to be made along the way. Could we power the whole building for three full days? No way, we realized. So, the design involved what we could do within the resiliency center.”

He goes on to assert that this one battery project “is just the beginning. We have to get to the point of market transformation in terms of costs, capacity, legal and regulatory considerations and more widespread technical competence. Battery prices are still expensive, though the prices are coming down. How do we leverage what we’re doing to a larger scale? That becomes our M.O.”

“The beauty of this project is that by demonstrating that it could be done, that it can be done! We want other people to be able to do this,” Stevens states. “And we want to show them how to do it.”

Story Contacts:
Jim Knight
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Jeffrey Lesk
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Martin Mellett
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Herbert Stevens
[email protected]
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Tommy Wells
[email protected]