One of the key legacies from 2020 is the starkness with which it revealed how climate change impacts our electricity system, our lives, and our economy. Wildfires devastated the Western U.S. and broke records in California, while on the East Coast, millions sat in darkness in the wake of Hurricane Isaias. The reinsurer Munich Re reports that U.S. disaster costs, fueled by climate change, doubled last year from 2019 levels.
Events like these make it increasingly difficult for policymakers, regulators, and electric utilities to avoid suitable responses. The health, safety, and economic stability of all Americans depends on reliable electricity access – even more so as we restructure our lives under the constraints of social distancing and hospitals strain to meet the challenges of COVID-19.
But power outages in the U.S. are actually increasing both in frequency and duration, and the U.S. now leads all developed nations in outage frequency. This is a consequence of neglecting our electrical grid as well as the advent of more frequent and intense climate-driven heat waves, wildfires, and extreme weather.
Fortunately, clean resilience solutions exist and are already protecting communities across the nation. Through study and pilot programs, states and cities have demonstrated the ability of solar-plus-storage technology to provide safe, clean, and continuous backup power following natural disasters and outages.
Far superior to diesel generators in many ways, solar-plus-storage can also provide year-round economic benefits to energy consumers and the grid.
To help states grapple with these challenges, Stem has published a new white paper, “Designing a Policy Roadmap to a Clean Resilient Grid.” Aimed primarily at state utility commissions, the report proposes a framework for policymakers to set their state on a path towards a resilient electrical system. Download the white paper here.
Clean Technology Solutions Exist, But Systematic Policy Support Is Absent
The states most exposed to grid-damaging disasters have recognized the vital role of resilience in the electric system and tested various solutions.
In the wake of devastation from Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, and other unprecedented weather events, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island engaged experts and consultants to evaluate the costs and benefits of solar-plus-storage microgrids and backup power.
These states then acted by directly investing in backup power pilots for critical facilities such as hospitals, first responder stations, water and sewage treatment facilities, and public shelters.
Hurricane-prone Florida has also invested in solar-plus-storage for over 100 schools, places that often serve as de facto emergency service providers when disasters strike and as makeshift hospitals during pandemics.
In many of these studies and pilot programs, solar-plus-storage backup power and microgrids emerged as the preferred resilience solutions, and could be termed “clean resilience” due to their advantages over diesel generators:
- Can provide 24/7 power without refueling
- Not vulnerable to fuel supply disruptions
- Does not pollute local air quality or exacerbate health issues that may increase disaster fatalities
- Provides year-round economic benefits for end-users and the grid, lowering electricity costs for all and reducing GHG emissions.
- Can help prevent outages during extreme heat by participating in Demand Response programs
- Can eliminate the need for heavily polluting natural gas “peaker plants”
Comprehensive policy support is now needed to scale implementation. Even among states most at risk of outages, the current policy landscape is a piecemeal collection of pilot projects, small grant programs, and catastrophe response – not a systematic and proactive approach to ensuring widespread energy resilience for all.
Effective Policy Roadmaps
Any sound approach to developing systemic resilience must begin with a policy roadmap. These documents, of which New York’s Energy Storage Roadmap provides a noteworthy example, define a clear destination and then lay out the steps for reaching it.
An effective clean resilience policy roadmap should clearly define resilience components, classify customers and communities according to resilience needs, and recommend a series of specific policy and market mechanisms across envisioned scenarios.
- Resilience Service Levels (RSLs) should be established to categorize the most common resilience needs, and a resilience valuation methodology should be established to determine the value of any resilience solution, including standardized valuations for RSLs
- A Facility Resilience Matrix (FRM) should identify the likely and/or preferred groupings of resilience needs within the state and inform policy design and allocation of state support
- An overarching principle of socioeconomic equity should guide policy creation and implementation
- Finally, a policy timeline with key milestones and target dates should clarify the successive stages of policy development, implementation, evaluation, and iteration
Ideally, roadmaps do not impose deployment standards or set resilience metrics with which utilities must comply. Rather, they assist states in creating market mechanisms where stakeholders can analyze the costs and benefits of potential resilience projects and catalyze investment where the benefits – to customers, communities and society – outweigh the costs.
Towards a Resilient, Clean, and Just Energy System
Clean resilience roadmaps are urgently needed for all 50 states and 5 territories. However, this urgency should not preclude thoughtful consideration of what type of resilience is most valuable and how resources should be prioritized.
As states increasingly adopt emissions targets in order to mitigate climate change and extreme weather, resilience roadmaps must support clean, emissions-free technologies. They must also address the reality that not all communities are equally vulnerable: centuries of inequitable policies have left low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color most exposed to systemic and infrastructural shocks like pandemics, climate impacts, and power outages.
A truly just resilience roadmap can both avoid compounding historical inequity and restore equity by prioritizing investment in marginalized communities.
The technology for tomorrow’s clean, resilient grid is here today. It’s time for policymakers to urgently declare a proactive vision for their state’s electricity system and issue a policy roadmap for achieving it. Stem’s clean resilience roadmap is designed to be a key resource in this regard. Download the white paper here.