It’s Time for a More Resilient Florida

Authors: Marriele Mango, Clean Energy Group and Zelalem Adefris, Catalyst Miami| Projects: Energy Storage Policy, Resilient Power Project 

Credit: Antti Lipponen, via FLICKR; CC BY 2.0

Despite not sustaining a direct hit, Hurricane Dorian still left parts of Florida flooded and over 170,000 people without power. In the past, a single extreme weather event has left hundreds of thousands of people in Florida without power, in some cases for more than a week. After Hurricane Irma devastated Florida in 2017, 80 percent of Miami-Dade County residents and businesses were without power. Over 38,000 remained without power a week later.

Households dependent on electricity to power medical devices risk a health crisis every time the power goes out. Outages worsen existing health conditions for people reliant on electricity-powered medical devices like respirators, put medically fragile populations in jeopardy as air conditioning ceased to function, and increase hunger due to the spoiling of food reserves without adequate refrigeration. Solar, combined with battery storage systems (solar+storage), which generate and store energy to be used when grid electricity is no longer available, can equip critical community facilities with reliable backup power in the event of an outage, allowing them to provide critical services to area residents. Yet, resilient power adoption in the region remains limited due to a lack of awareness, incentives, and governmental support.

City and County governments can enhance their existing resilience and recovery efforts, and help residents prevail through the next storm, by expanding their investment in resilient power applications. This can be done in a number of ways, including leveraging the concept of Resilience Hubs: year-round, trusted, community centers that support residents and distribute resources after a disaster, and serve as centers to foster grassroots community leadership. Solar+storage will allow Resilience Hubs to operate in the event of an outage and can even provide additional year-round benefits, such as utility bill savings, when incorporated into existing community facilities, such as schools or recreation centers.

The Resilience Hub model is replicable and could support statewide energy security efforts. In a 2018 report published by the Eaton Corporation, Florida ranked first as the state with the most customers affected by power outages over the past decade. For medically vulnerable populations, especially the sick, elderly and disabled, even a short-term power outage can quickly escalate into a medical crisis. Resilience Hubs equipped with reliable power for charging stations for medical equipment and refrigeration for prescription drugs would ensure that medically vulnerable residents could safely shelter-in-place through a storm or safely wait for evacuation.

There are already success stories of resilient power systems installed in Florida. The state-led SunSmart Emergency Shelters program has equipped over 100 public schools in Florida with solar+storage systems capable of keeping lights and electrical outlets operating during a grid-disrupting natural disaster. After Hurricane Irma resulted in widespread power outages, 41 SunSmart schools opened as shelters using their solar+storage systems. Among the schools that operated as shelters, one school accommodated residents with special needs. Another school ran out of gas for backup generators, but the solar+storage system continued to supply power serving the emergency shelter. Support for Resilience Hubs is the logical and necessary next step to build on the resilient power foundation set by the SunSmart Emergency Shelters program.

It should also be noted that, in addition to increasing community resilience, solar+storage can also be an economical investment when factoring in potential electricity bill savings and savings due to avoiding the cost of power outages. In a recent report published by Clean Energy Group and co-authored by Catalyst Miami, Resilient Southeast: Exploring Opportunities for Solar+Storage in Miami, FL, solar+storage was found to be a positive investment for all critical community facility types analyzed when the economic value of energy resilience, otherwise referred to as avoided outage-related costs, was factored into the modelling. Avoided outage-related costs represent the value of losses that would be incurred if a facility were to experience a power outage without a backup source of energy generation. Miami customers had the highest avoided outage costs of any of the locations evaluated for the broader Resilient Southeast report series due to the duration of recent prolonged power outages from severe weather.

Florida may have largely dodged a bullet this time, but hurricane season is still upon us and the next disaster could still be around the corner. Through strong partnerships between grassroots organizations and government agencies, Miami-Dade County has the opportunity to become a leader in clean-energy resilience for the communities that need it the most. Solar+storage at government-owned and critical community facilities could provide residents, especially those in low-wealth and medically vulnerable households, with a safe and local community space prepared to handle their needs in the event that a power outage forces them to leave their home. As extreme weather continues to inundate South Florida, there is no better time than now to invest in resilient community resources.

 

About the Authors

Zelalem Adefris is the Resilience Director at Catalyst Miami. Catalyst Miami is a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying and collectively solving issues adversely affecting low-wealth communities throughout Miami-Dade County.

Marriele Mango is the Resilient Power Fellowship Program Associate at Clean Energy Group. Clean Energy Group is a leading national, nonprofit advocacy organization working on innovative policy, technology, and finance strategies in the areas of clean energy and climate change. The Resilient Power Project, a joint initiative of Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute, is focused on accelerating market development of resilient, clean energy solutions for affordable housing and critical community facilities in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

California Aims to Fix Low-Income Storage Program and Deliver New Resilience Incentives

Authors: Seth Mullendore and Lew Milford, Clean Energy Group | Projects: Energy Storage Policy, Resilient Power Project 

California’s energy storage incentive program has been a great success, with more than 11,000 battery storage systems installed to-date. The problem is, it’s not reaching the state’s most vulnerable communities. A new proposal from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) aims to fix some of the barriers preventing disadvantaged communities from participating in the program, and it allocates $100 million to a new program designed to offset the cost of battery storage systems for populations threatened by wildfires and related utility power shutoffs.  

California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) has a long history, dating back to 2001 when the program was established to encourage the development of customer-sited generation. Over the years, SGIP has evolved into primarily an energy storage incentive for residential and commercial customers. In recognition of the fact that these funds have not been flowing to the state’s disadvantaged communities, in 2017 the CPUC created the SGIP Equity Budget, a 25 percent carve-out of the program’s funds reserved for projects in disadvantaged and low-income communities. 

The CPUC had great intentions in establishing the Equity Budget – boosting economic and workforce development opportunities, reducing fossil-fuel power plant utilization, and increasing technology access among historically under-resourced and environmentally overburdened communities. Unfortunately, these good intentions were coupled with poor execution. Incentive levels were too low, outreach and education too minimal, and coordination with complimentary programs was nonexistent. While Equity Budget funds have been available for well over a year, not a penny of the existing $72 million in available funds has been allocated toward an energy storage project in these communities. 

The recent proposed decision from the CPUC would make several revisions to address these and other issues with the program. Some of the important revisions being proposed for the Equity Budget include: 

  • Increasing the energy storage incentive level to $0.65 per watt-hour. When the Equity Budget first launched, the incentive was set at the same level as the rest of SGIP, $0.35 per watt-hour, which failed to consider the added financial barriers facing low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities. This new incentive level should help, though whether it is high enough to move the market remains to be seen. 
  • Streamlining SGIP eligibility with low-income solar programs. California has some of the most robust low-income solar incentive program in the country. The CPUC has proposed that customers participating in the state’s residential Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) or Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) programs will be automatically deemed eligible for the SGIP Equity Budget. (This is something Clean Energy Group has been advocating for since we released our Closing the California Clean Energy Divide report in 2016.) 
  • Allowing for SGIP in virtual net metering. Another hurdle to energy storage in multifamily affordable housing has been that the storage has to be connected behind the customer’s utility meter. Under the SOMAH incentive program, affordable housing residents must receive a financial benefit from incentivized solar systems by receiving solar bill credits through virtual net metering (VNEM). VNEM systems are typically installed on the utility side of the meter. The proposed decision removes the behind-the-meter requirement. This opens the program to benefit the 43 percent of California’s low-income population living in multifamily housing. (This is another area Clean Energy Group has been advocating for. Unfortunately, the change doesn’t solve some remaining issues such as barriers preventing demand charge savings to be realized through VNEM and complications in delivering energy resilience to residents.) 
  • Including California Indian Country in disadvantaged communities. Based on how disadvantaged communities were being defined, tribal communities in California had been excluded from the SGIP Equity Budget. The proposed changes will fix that by expanding the definition to include tribal populations. 
  • Increasing awareness of SGIP through marketing, education, and outreach. The CPUC is proposing to devote funds toward an outreach campaign that will co-promote the SGIP Equity Budget with low-income solar incentive programs, inform customers with the greatest resiliency needs about the program and how to apply, and train local residents in communities that qualify for Equity Budget incentives. Lack of outreach and awareness has been a serious barrier to the success of the program. 

The other major change proposed by the CPUC is the repurposing of $100 million in unused SGIP funds to establish a new Equity Resilience program that prioritizes energy storage for residents facing a high risk of power loss due to the threat of wildfires. (This is a move that echoes recommendations made by Clean Energy Group in our June 2019 report, Home Health Care in the Dark. The report addresses how people who rely on electricity to power home health equipment are at serious risk from power outages, including the wildfire-related utility shutoffs facing millions of people in California.)  

The proposed SGIP Equity Resiliency incentive is designed to fully cover the cost of certain battery storage systems for people in the state who are at risk from outages due to the threat of wildfires. Over eight million California residents could face utility shutoffs due to wildfire threats, from hours to days or even a week in the dark. Among those affected by the shutoffs will be tens of thousands of elderly, low-income, and otherwise disadvantaged residents whose well-being depends on home medical equipment. Without power, this equipment will stop working. The results could be catastrophic and potentially life-threatening in many cases. 

The Equity Resiliency program is a huge deal. It represents a first-in-the-nation precedent to link resilient power and public health, a possible turning point in the protection of medically vulnerable people from climate induced disasters, such as wildfires and heat waves, and related utility shutoffs or brownouts. 

The proposed program includes the following elements: 

  • Reallocation of $100 million in unused SGIP funds to establish Equity Resiliency incentives. The funds come out of a generation-focused portion of the program that is no longer being utilized. This is currently a one-time allocation, but the CPUC may look into ways to bring additional funds into the program. 
  • Incentive level of $0.85 per watt-hour for eligible customers. This incentive level was specifically designed to fully offset the cost of certain battery storage systems. The CPUC intends for these funds to be used to address an urgent and immediate need for energy resilience. It does not want to repeat the mistakes of the Equity Budget. 
  • Open to vulnerable residential customers in highrisk fire zones and commercial facilities providing critical services to these communities. Customer that are in zones designated as the having the highest risk of fire (Tier 3 High Fire-Threat Districts) are eligible for Equity Resilience incentives if they are also eligible for the SGIP Equity Budget or are customers with a medical condition that could become life-threatening without access to energy. Commercial customers providing critical services during power shutoff events to customers in the highrisk zones are also eligible for the incentive. (This is a good start but fails to recognize that customers outside of high-risk fire zones may also lose access to electricity when utilities shutoff powerlines to avoid sparking wildfires.) 

The Equity Resiliency program itself is significant, but what it represents may be transformational. It recognizes that utilities no longer are meeting their “obligation to serve” all customers in the face of climate induced disasters, such as wildfires. The CPUC decision affirms the utility position that at-risk populations in these areas are now on their own and need to figure out how to protect themselves. This is a monumental shift in the 100yearold monopoly role for utilities to serve all customers, a major rupture that has not yet been fully appreciated and which is likely to have enormous ramifications for the growth of the solar and storage markets going forward. 

California is the only state that has begun to actively recognize this shift in obligation away from the utility and onto the consumer. Other states will need to follow for this type of policy adjustment incentivizing local energy resilience to result in real, public health benefits across the country. In the end, this is only a first step, but it is a significant one. Advocacy from environmental justice and health advocates is needed not only in California to make sure this program works, but in other states to set up similar supportive funding programs.  

While not perfect, the changes proposed by the CPUC should result in a much improved and more equitable energy storage incentive program, one that can serve as a model for other states considering incentives, as well as those wrestling with how to protect vulnerable citizens in the face of growing climate threats. 

 

This blog post was also published in Renewable Energy World.