September 30, 2019

It’s Time for a More Resilient Florida

By Marriele Mango, Zelalem Adefris

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.

Photo Credit

NOAA, via Flickr

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