August 12, 2020

With More Massive Power Outages Last Week, Let’s Spend More Utility Funds to Protect Customers with Resilient Power Where They Live

By Lewis Milford, Marriele Mango

Last week, the East Coast of the country suffered through another damaging round of power outages from another hurricane, this one Isaias. Millions of people lost power, the most since Superstorm Sandy, causing untold misery and disruption.

Those who work from home, school their children, and deal with other pressures during COVID-19 were forced to juggle these responsibilities without electricity. This is another indignity that makes people question why their lives resemble some uncontrolled decline from what once was a developed economy.

Perhaps the most disappointing response was the predictable political reaction to the outages. Like a repeat of a Groundhog Day episode, public officials of various states lambasted the utilities for failures and blamed them for only focusing on “grid upgrades and utility hardening”, measures that obviously have not improved reliability.

As this article explains, there are better ways to spend utility money on new ways to finance resilient power – solar and storage (solar+storage) systems that can provide backup power during outages – in homes and critical facilities. Isaias was a reminder that all states and utilities need to explore more innovative solutions to protect their residents from damaging power outages. While some – primarily, New England and California – have developed pilot programs that offer customer sited solar+storage, much more must be done to make solar+storage technologies the main driver behind storm related resiliency.

It’s time to end the wishful thinking that only utility “grid upgrades and utility hardening” programs will solve this problem going forward. They won’t, especially in the new world of COVID 19 and the shift that has occurred in work and school.

Reliable electricity has always been a necessity, but it is now more than ever a critical lifeline to our basic existence. This point is made clear each and every time severe weather strikes: the impact power outages have on our livelihood and public health can be severe. Hurricane Isaias left over three million people without electricity, including those reliant on electricity for critical medical equipment. As of this writing, a week after the storm hit, many people are still without power.

This long duration outage highlights the health disparities faced by low-income, medically vulnerable populations during an outage.

After an apartment complex in Connecticut with 100 older and disabled residents lost power for days, electricity-dependent residents were left with few solutions. When asked about one man’s living conditions without electricity, he stated that, without access to air conditioning, he was living in a “sweatbox, you can’t breathe, that’s how hot it is in there.” Another resident reported that her husband was “suffocating” without electricity to power the medical devices required to treat his throat cancer. As residents waited and listened to Con Edison’s assurances that power would be restored shortly, one man noted “I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Solar+storage can provide clean and reliable emergency power to high-risk households and critical facilities in the event of an outage, while also saving money on electric bills to places like affordable housing and senior centers.

Residential solar+storage systems can support some types of electricity-dependent home medical equipment through an outage or provide enough backup power to safely wait until support can safely arrive. Solar+storage at critical community facilities, such as senior centers and schools and in community spaces of affordable housing complexes, can provide back-up power resources for residents to access WIFI, lighting, refrigeration for perishables and temperature-sensitive medications, and outlets to charge medical equipment and cell phones.

The big questions is how to pay for these systems – here is where utilities could play a much smarter role to ensure grid stability and avoid power outages.

Perhaps rather than invest all their resiliency funds in multi-billion-dollar grid upgrades, utilities should provide subsidized battery storage programs to their customers through their existing energy efficiency programs.

These types of programs can improve health outcomes by providing backup power to vulnerable populations, while also reducing the energy burden of low-income households and providing value to the grid—which could lower electricity costs for all utility customers.

There are many good examples of innovative policy and programs to provide customers with resilient, clean backup power at little or no cost. These include:

  • California utility PG&E of California now is offering its critical health and low-income customers free batteries to protect them from fire-related grid outages, using the state’s SGIP battery rebate;
  • Cape Light Compact, an electric co-op is providing free or low-cost solar+storage+heat pump systems to low-income customers on Cape Cod;
  • Green Mountain Power, which has provided more than 2,000 residential customers in Vermont with batteries through its Resilient Home program, is giving free batteries to low-income and health critical customers;
  • And now, through an innovative utility program in New England, several utilities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire have adopted the ConnectedSolutions program model to offer batteries to residential and commercial customers through their state energy efficiency programs.

The key to all these programs is that the utilities involved contract with their customers to use customer-owned batteries as a “virtual power plant” to meet grid needs. This saves money for all ratepayers while providing clean backup power to the customer hosting the battery. It’s a cost-effective way to get backup power to individuals and communities that need it – but to make this possible, states must offer support in the form of incentives, low-cost financing, or simply regulatory approval for programs like ConnectedSolutions.

It’s clear from the damage done last week that resilient power technologies remain largely inaccessible. Not enough has been done to fund programs that incentivize solar+storage for low-income and high-risk populations. The result: the most vulnerable residents do not have a reliable backup power resource to rely on in the event of an outage.

It’s time for state officials to realize that these programs are the future of resiliency. Let’s stop assuming that only utility hardening programs work. Let’s take a hard look at the multi-billion dollar utility grid programs and see if a more balanced budget that invests in customer sited resilient power makes more sense.

Let’s move towards more reliable, customer sited, resilient power and create a 21st power system that protects everyone in need now.

Photo Credit

Clean Energy Group

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