June 24, 2020

COVID-19, Severe Weather, and Power Outages

By Marriele Mango

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.

Photo Credit

US Army Corps of Engineers, via Flickr

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