EQUITY AND JUSTICE: BENDING THE ARC OF THE TECHNOLOGY CURVE TOWARD VULNERABLE POPULATIONS
“Storage needs to compete on economics, and there’s no getting around that. But the industry could gain from forging new alliances with stakeholders that have overlapping interests.… Environmental justice is a logical place to start, because storage is well equipped to tackle the environmental damage that often falls more heavily on poor or minority populations.” Julian Spector, Greentech Media¹
Early adopters of innovative, disruptive technologies are typically the well-to-do and, so far, battery storage is no exception. Most of the economic benefits of storage are now realized by commercial utility customers who are saving money from these systems through electricity bill reductions. Very few of these projects are in disadvantaged communities; ironically, low-income customers need the benefits of solar and battery storage systems the most. Advocacy and policy must be directed to ensure that all communities benefit from these technologies now, not ten years from now.
While natural disasters and associated grid outages affect everyone, not all communities are equally harmed. Often, it is the poor, the elderly, and the disabled who are hit hardest, because they are less mobile, less able withstand the dangers from an outage, and less able to recover from a disaster.
Disadvantaged communities have fewer resources; they may not be able to re-locate to a hotel or temporary housing during or after a storm. And they tend to be under-insured, so it is more difficult for them to recover from property losses. If power outages disrupt the ability to go to work, the resulting disruptions in income hit harder in communities that have fewer economic resources.
In cities, low-income communities are often located in low-lying areas, making them more vulnerable to flooding. Evacuation is harder on the poor, who may have nowhere to go; and on the disabled and elderly, who may not be able to move safely.
And for those dependent on electricity for the refrigeration of medicines and for powering medical devices, the loss of electricity can have much more severe consequences than simply being left in the dark (2).
Also, many poor, elderly, and disabled people live in buildings with electric bills that include the same kind of high utility “demand charges” for electricity facing large, private companies.
Solar PV and battery storage (solar+storage) can reduce demand charges on facilities that house and provide essential services to the economically or physically vulnerable (3). Taming utility demand charges (which are on the rise) makes for a good strategy for helping affordable housing owners to manage their energy bills.
In addition to these direct economic benefits, solar+storage can power essential services during extended power outages. Such clean energy equity provided by solar+storage systems could ensure that all communities have access to the economic, health, and resiliency benefits that these technologies can provide.
Solar+storage systems are also possible drivers of local economic development. Savings from systems can be reinvested in affordable housing and community buildings. Local groups can own or lease solar+storage systems, leading to more community-led investment.
More installations of such systems in low-income communities and communities of color also can provide a semblance of equity in the energy system. Vulnerable populations should be first, not last, in line to obtain the benefits of new clean energy technologies.
The key challenge is this: how can we bend the arc of this solar+storage technology trend toward public purposes now, not as a last resort but as a matter of market design and social justice? To capture this opportunity, we must first fully understand the drivers and limits of these emerging energy storage markets.
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Photo: © Jacob Hannah/The New York Times/Redux