COVID-19, Severe Weather, and Power Outages

Author: Marriele Mango  | Projects: Resilient Power Project, Energy Storage and Health

Photo Josh Edelson/ AFP/Getty Images

Wildfire and hurricane season is here and with it comes an influx of weather-related power outages. Experts are warning that natural disasters and extreme weather events will be more frequent and severe this year and that this summer will be hotter than average. Power outages coinciding with high temperatures can quickly escalate to a public health crisis. Between 1999 and 2016, 10,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to heat exposure – that’s more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods. The health implications of power outages this summer are further compounded this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past couple years, millions of people have lost power due to severe weather – some for days on end. The consequences of these outages can be devastating. This is especially true for the 2.5 million Americans that rely on electricity for home medical equipment, such as ventilators, electric wheelchairs, and oxygen concentrators. Many more depend on electricity for air conditioning to avoid heat-induced medical complications and for refrigeration of temperature sensitive medication. Some utility and state leaders have made efforts to reduce health disparities in the event of an outage through programs and policies, but electricity-dependent populations remain especially vulnerable.

How Power Outages Impact Health

After Hurricane Irma decimated the Southeast in 2017, twelve people died when a Florida nursing home lost power and its air conditioning system was not connected to the emergency generator. The situation was grossly mishandled by nursing home staff and management; patients lived in temperatures reaching 100 degrees for days before being evacuated. In the wake of this tragedy, Florida passed a law requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install backup power generators that could run for 48-to-72 hours (depending on the facility). Nursing homes must also be able to maintain building temperatures of no more than 81 degrees. While the legislation is commendable and most required facilities have complied, it’s not comprehensive enough. Earlier this month, a building at an apartment complex in Florida that serves seniors and people with disabilities lost power; because the facility was an independent living center there were no backup power requirements. Some residents considered sleeping in their cars with the AC running. Others couldn’t access their apartments without a working elevator.

In California, over 2 million people lost power during 2019 Public Safety Preventative Shutoff (PSPS) events, utility-conducted power shutoffs during times of heightened wildfire risk. Despite being required to contact customers and alert them as to the PSPS, Pacific Electric and Gas (PG&E), the largest utility in California, failed to notify 23,000 customers – 500 of whom had medical conditions – about the upcoming PSPS event. As a result, medically vulnerable residents suffered; a woman was forced to sleep in her wheelchair when her electricity-dependent bed became inoperable and one man’s wife woke him to tell him he his oxygen concentrator stopped working and he wasn’t breathing.

In preparation for this wildfire season, PG&E has been building a stock of backup power resources to provide emergency power during the 2020 wildfire season. Although community organizations have advocated for resilient and renewable backup power resources, PG&E is spending almost $100 million on a fleet of mobile diesel generators to deploy during PSPS. This plan effectively exposes communities, many of which are already dealing with health and environmental disparities related to pollution, to more toxic emissions.

Power Outage Preparedness and COVID-19

Existing gaps in power outage preparedness will be exacerbated by COVID-19. As the pandemic continues to spread, mass evacuation and sheltering operations for fires, floods, and hurricanes will be complicated by the risk of disease. Supporting sheltering-in-place strategies for a power outage, such as installing backup power systems in residences and local critical facilities, could allow those especially vulnerable to COVID-19 to remain home or shelter in less crowded community spaces. Ultimately, if local support with backup power is unavailable, electricity-dependent individuals will depend on hospitals for care, further overwhelming facilities already dealing with the operational and capacity challenges associated with an emergency. During COVID-19, this means also risking exposure to infection.

Public health and emergency management officials recognize the dangers of severe weather – and they have designated public facilities to serve as cooling centers, evacuation and mass care centers, and, in California, PSPS resource centers. However, many facilities are not equipped with backup power and are therefore unable to provide services through an outage – including some critical community medical clinics. One recent survey of rural and community health centers in California found only 44 percent had a backup power system, despite 97 percent housing vaccines and medications that require refrigeration. The same is true of residential settings. Affordable housing, assisted and independent living facilities, and single-family homes are rarely equipped with backup power systems, especially in low-income communities. Most residents can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs and critical facilities serving under-resourced communities oftentimes must contend with shoestring budgets and limited resources.

Those with backup power likely have a gas or diesel generator, which emit toxic pollutants, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning when improperly operated, are prone to failure, and provide zero economic benefits when the grid is operational―harmful effects that could be remedied by using resilient power alternatives. Resilient power technologies – battery storage, ideally paired with solar photovoltaics (solar+storage) – can equip critical facilities and residences with reliable backup power in the event of an outage. In addition to providing power to operate lighting, communications, and heating/cooling equipment, solar+storage can power charging stations for electricity-dependent home medical equipment and refrigeration for perishables and medication. During normal grid operations, solar+storage can deliver utility bill savings and even generate revenue in some cases through providing services to the grid.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Access to reliable backup power resources, both at residential homes and at critical community facilities, can improve health outcomes in the event of an outage and is increasingly essential as weather-related power outages increase in frequency and duration. States and utilities are responsible for the well-being of the residents they serve and should be at the forefront in developing pathways for vulnerable residents to access solar+storage. Some have taken on this responsibility and, in doing so, have provided a replicable model for other states and utilities to adopt nationwide.

California Self-Generation Incentive Program

California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) is the most robust battery storage incentive program in the country. SGIP provides tiered rebates for battery storage based on income and proximity to high wildfire risk areas. The program’s new Equity Resilience incentive offers the highest rate and can offset an entire cost of a battery storage system. This incentive is specifically for low-income customers living in high wildfire threat zones or in areas that have experienced multiple outages due to PSPS (both critical facilities and residences are eligible). When the funds for the incentive were released earlier this year, the program was inundated with applications. This July, the next round of funding (upwards of $500 million) will be released.

Since California originally launched their battery storage incentive program, other states have followed suit, including New York. Additionally, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to include behind-the-meter battery storage in a state energy efficiency plan, allowing utility customers to be compensated for installing battery storage systems that participate in grid services, such as demand charge management.

Green Mountain Power, Vermont

While utilities across the country have begun recognizing the value of energy resilience through various solar+storage investments and programs, the best example of a residential resilient power program is Green Mountain Power’s. In 2017, Green Mountain Power (GMP), the largest utility in Vermont, opened a pilot for 2,000 customers to access battery storage systems (Tesla Powerwalls). One hundred of the systems were provided at no-cost to low-income customers that relied on electricity for medical purposes. As power went out for Vermonters during severe snowstorms and high wind events, customers with Tesla Powerwalls reported over seven hours of reliable backup power from their batteries (even longer for those that connected their battery to a solar PV system). GMP’s wider customer base also benefitted – battery storage units in GMP’s service territory offset energy during the highest peak demand of year, resulting in $600,000 in ratepayer savings.

GMP has since expanded their battery storage offerings, although there are no longer subsidized batteries available to medically vulnerable customers. Current programs include a Bring-Your-Own-Device option and an opportunity to lease a battery for $55 a month over ten years (or customers can make a one-time payment of $5,500).

In addition to the efforts outlined above, more states and utilities need to prioritize the health and well-being of the most vulnerable residents and expand access to resilient power technologies. There is no reason someone should face a medical crisis due to a power outage.

CESA Honors Six Clean Energy Programs with the 2020 State Leadership in Clean Energy Awards

Author: Maria Blais Costello, Clean Energy Group | Project: Clean Energy States Alliance

The Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), a national nonprofit coalition of public agencies working together to advance clean energy, announced the recipients of the 2020 State Leadership in Clean Energy Awards at its annual membership meeting, held online in early June. Since 2009, the biennial Leadership Awards have recognized outstanding state programs and projects that have accelerated the adoption of clean energy technologies. The six winners were chosen by an independent panel of judges.

The 2020 State Leadership in Clean Energy Award winners are tackling major clean energy challenges, including bringing the benefits of clean energy to low- and moderate-income communities, paving the way for large-scale offshore wind development, reducing emissions in the agricultural sector, and developing new business models for emerging technologies like energy storage. CESA will be featuring these programs in a webinar series and compiling case studies of the programs for a summary report to be released in mid-July.

The awards were chosen an independent group of judges, and CESA is pleased to present the 2020 awards were presented to the following organizations:

  • California Energy Commission (CEC) for its Renewable Energy for Agriculture Program (REAP). The REAP program gives grants for renewable energy systems in agricultural operations. Along with greenhouse gas emission reduction, REAP projects reduce energy costs, improve air quality, and promote energy and environmental equity by serving disadvantaged communities and low-income areas. The total new system capacity installed from the 45 REAP-funded projects will be nearly 6.6 megawatts. Based on average retail electricity rates, this is expected to yield over $1.6 million in cost savings for grant recipients each year. Over the lifespan of the installed equipment, the greenhouse gas reduction will be more than 128,300 metric tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalent, which, according to the US EPA greenhouse gas calculator, is the equivalent of taking 27,000 cars of the road for a year. READ MORE
  • Energy Trust of Oregon for its Inclusive Innovation Project. The Inclusive Innovation Project is making solar affordable and accessible for customers with lower incomes, rural customers, and communities of color. It has focused on capacity building support, community engagement, and partnership development. By building relationships with community-based organizations across the state and by providing stipends to enable them to participate in working group meetings, the project gained valuable feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. Energy Trust created a system for learning, teaching and experimentation that is improving its programs by making them more responsive to different customer groups. The Inclusive Innovation project has resulted in 54 new low-income projects in the pipeline at residential, commercial and multifamily housing sites. Empowered community representatives are providing meaningful feedback to Energy Trust staff, leading to modified solar programs that are more equitable and effective. READ MORE
  • Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources for the Mass Solar Loan Program. The Mass Solar Loan program has offered special incentives and fostered partnerships with local banks and credit unions to increase access to financing for solar PV ownership. It gives special attention to creating a robust solar lending market for low-income customers. Since December 2015, over 5,400 loans have been closed, totaling $173 million in loan value and 46 MW of residential solar PV across the state. More than half of the projects have benefitted low- and moderate-income residents, reducing their energy costs. The loan program has offered three incentive types to expand access and reduce financing costs: interest rate buy-downs, income-based principal reductions, and a loan loss reserve for lenders. The program has fostered a durable market for residential solar lending even as program incentives phase out over time. READ MORE
  • Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy for its Michigan Solar Communities – Low- to Moderate-Income Access Program. The Low- to Moderate- Income Access program uses a community solar model to enable customers to access solar, obtain weatherization services, and save on their electric bills. The program represents a close partnership between two local electric utilities (Cherryland Electric Cooperative and the Village of L’Anse Electric Utility), state government, and weatherization and community action entities. Since the start of the program in 2018, over 100 households have signed up to participate in two Michigan community solar projects, with the Cherryland’s 50 subscribers each receiving bill credits averaging about $350 per year, and the L’Anse project subscribers earning about $275 in solar bill credits each year. Through these pilot projects, Michigan is gaining valuable data on program participants’ energy use while program managers are learning how to better address low-income energy challenges. READ MORE
  • New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for its Offshore Wind Program. NYSERDA is coordinating offshore wind opportunities in New York State and is supporting the development of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035 to power over six million homes. It has focused on key aspects of developing offshore wind, including supply chain and workforce development; technology research and development; pre-development research on environmental impacts, transmission and grid development; and stakeholder engagement. NYSERDA’s Offshore Wind Program offers an unprecedented opportunity to realize the state’s clean energy and public health goals. The first two projects alone will generate more than $3.2 billion in new economic activity while delivering approximately $700 million of avoided health impact benefits by displacing fossil-fuels. By 2035, offshore wind has the potential to bring billions of dollars in private investment, including major upgrades to infrastructure, 10,000 jobs, and contribute approximately 30 percent of the state’s electricity load. READ MORE
  • Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) for Energy StorageShares. Energy StorageShares is an innovative first-of-a-kind program that enables eligible commercial customers to make an up-front investment to receive a monthly on-bill credit for a 10-year term. SMUD bundles the investments with its own capital and installs battery storage in a high-value location that provides significant grid benefits. The bill credit reflects the savings the customer would have received from an on-site battery that would have reduced demand charges. The program provides guaranteed savings to the customer without impacting their business operations, creating maintenance obligations, or requiring physical space at their business for a battery system. The economies of scale significantly reduce the cost of battery energy storage, as it is much less expensive to install a few large battery systems. The program benefits all SMUD customers by using battery storage to address the locational needs of the electrical grid. READ MORE

CESA would like to thank the judges who donated their time to participate in this awards process: Ellen Anderson, senior energy researcher and former executive director, University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab; Lori Bird, director of World Resource Institute’s U.S. Energy Program; Mark Bolinger, research scientist in the Electricity Markets and Policy Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Cameron Brooks, founder and president of E9 Energy Insight; and Meredith Hatfield, executive director of the New England Conference of Public Utilities Commissioners. The participation of the judges and the selection of these awardees are not intended to represent the views of the judges’ organizations or any of their respective members.

In July, CESA will release a report on the State Leadership in Clean Energy Award winners that will include case studies of the programs. The report will be posted on CESA’s website at https://www.cesa.org/projects/state-leadership-in-clean-energy/2020-awards/. This webpage also contains information and registration links for a webinar series highlighting these exemplary programs. The webinars, which will take place in the summer and fall of 2020, will be free to attend and open to the public.

  • The Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Energy StorageShares Program, September 2020 (details forthcoming)
  • The California Energy Commission’s Renewable Energy for Agriculture Program, October 2020 (details forthcoming)

Clean Energy Group Statement on the Nationwide Movement Against Racism

Clean Energy Group stands in solidarity with the national movement to fight racism across the country. Over the past weeks, widespread protests propelled by acts of police brutality against black communities have forced this country to confront a culture of ongoing and systemic racism. The racial disparities that have contributed to this system of oppression persist in every sector. The energy industry is no exception.

Black communities and other communities of color have for generations lived in areas with energy inefficient housing, an unreliable and outdated power grid, and contended with the highest rates of pollution from fossil-fuel power plants, the transportation sector, and storage of fossil fuels. These same communities already suffer the disproportionate burden of climate impacts due to the unabated rise in greenhouse-gas emissions and suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses and chronic conditions directly linked to an increased likelihood of COVID-19 related hospitalization and death.

This environmental racism shares the same roots as the myriad racial injustices and brutalities endured by black members of our society for centuries. Clean Energy Group remains committed to expanding collaborations with frontline environmental justice organizations across the country to help address these barriers to justice to bring greater equity to the clean energy movement.