March 30, 2020

COVID-19 and Resilient Power

By Marriele Mango

Like everyone, Clean Energy Group (CEG) has been forced to reassess its work and priorities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. All staff are working remotely and the state of Vermont, where the CEG office is located, requires all non-essential business to continue to work remotely until at least April 15. Beyond the operational challenges, the impacts of COVID-19 have already resonated in each of CEG’s program areas. This is especially true of Resilient Power Project initiatives, specifically Energy Storage and Health and Energy Storage and Peaker Replacement, projects aimed at improving energy equity through expanding resilient power access in historically under-resourced communities.

While the likelihood of a widespread blackout resulting from COVID-19 is unlikely, an outage caused by severe weather or a natural disaster is still very much possible. Hurricane season starts June 1 and wildfire season shortly after. Hospitals are mandated to have access to 72-hours of backup power, but (depending on the state) many critical facilities, such as medical clinics and nursing homes, are not required to have a backup power system. An outage now could be disastrous for critical medical facilities, service providers, and first responders already inundated with the sick and scared.

Our health system is already juggling shortages and capacity challenges; it simply cannot handle another influx. This week, over a 24-hour period in New York State, the number of hospitalizations grew by 40 percent to over 5,000 patients, almost 1,300 of which are in intensive care. While New York City is the current epicenter, other cities are quickly following suite (New Orleans is anticipated to be the next hot spot).

If an outage was to occur now, vulnerable residents that have so far been able to avoid exposure would be faced with challenging health decisions and hospitals may be forced to prioritize care, a seemingly impossible task. Nursing homes could be forced to move residents, further exposing them to risk. Home health care beneficiaries, who otherwise could continue their health routine at home, would be compromised as they either seek a hospital to plug-in their medical equipment or are brought there due to a medical emergency. All these challenging considerations would be in addition to the non-medically vulnerable residents that would also be left home in the dark and requiring basic services.

Equipping medical clinics, family practices, critical community facilities, and medically vulnerable households with resilient solar+storage can help to ensure that hospitals and health care facilities already dealing with a health emergency aren’t further stressed in the event of an outage. Family practices and medical clinics can utilize solar+storage to better serve the general public by powering lighting, refrigeration for vaccines and temperature-regulated medicines, and databases that house electronic health records. Solar+storage can power emergency lighting and basic services in a community room in assisted care and affordable housing developments, allowing residents to access refrigeration, wifi, and outlets for charging cell phones and medical equipment. For facilities that have a larger load, like nursing homes, solar+storage can complement existing generators by powering smaller loads separately, like lighting and communications, and allowing onsite fuel supplies to be used more efficiently. In each of these cases, solar+storage would enable providers to remain open and operational through an outage and benefit economically year-round through daily utility savings.

For the over 2.5 million people dependent on electricity for home medical equipment, solar+storage, or stand-alone battery storage, could be the difference between sheltering in place through an outage verses going to a hospital. While those with home hospital rooms or ventilators may still need to seek medical support, people reliant on a single device or refrigeration for medication could remain at home through an outage, or at least ensure enough time for medical support, such as a home aid or family member, to arrive.

In addition to improving health outcomes in the event of an outage, solar+storage can positively influence environmental conditions related to public health by reducing reliance on polluting fossil-fuel power plants. Oil and gas peaker plants are some of the power system’s most expensive and inefficient resources. These plants are predominantly located in low-income communities and communities of color and emit toxic pollutants when activated, oftentimes coinciding with days of already poor air quality and contributing to higher rates of respiratory disease in the surrounding community. In fact, one study found that residents exposed to polluted air in Texas were more likely to have preexisting health issues like chronic lung disease and asthma, and are therefore more likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19.

Air pollution has seen a significant drop since COVID-19, due to widespread power plant and industrial shutoffs or reduced operations. Entire communities that once had a difficult time seeing the sky through the smog are experiencing, perhaps for the first time, fresh air. When the economy restarts and industry opens, these plants will come back to life business-as-usual. Battery storage and renewables can serve as cost-effective, clean alternatives to peaker power plants. The best preparation for the next health crisis is to reduce the occurrence of chronic illness and underlying health issues in the general population by adopting cleaner alternatives such as solar+storage.

As we evaluate and re-evaluate the undoubtedly substantial and lasting impacts COVID-19 will have on our work and the work of our partners across the country moving forward, it is more evident than ever that resilient power is a critical component to improving health outcomes in the event of a crisis like the world is currently experiencing. By strengthening energy security in the home health and public health sectors and through mitigating the harmful health impacts of fossil-fuel powered energy infrastructure, solar+storage can help prepare communities and lessen the impacts of future crises.

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