Equitable Resilience in the Grid

Grid Forward logoGridFWD 2020, hosted by Grid Forward, convened energy service professionals from across the Pacific Northwest in an online forum to explore the many changes, perspectives, and solutions regional stakeholders are pursuing to support reliable, affordable electric service and the well-being of customers, co-workers, and communities. In this series of articles, Cadmus presents insights from experts at the conference and the solutions industry leaders are exploring to advance equity in resilience.

December 8, 2020

By Edward Galvin

Given the combination of recent high-magnitude natural disasters, along with the emerging remote-work trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, home energy resilience is more important than ever. Resilience perspectives that were previously limited to seasonal hurricanes affecting the U.S. East Coast have expanded westward to encompass flooding, blizzards, tornados, and wildfire catastrophes. Equitable energy resilience was a recurring motif during the Resilient Systems themed sessions at GridFWD 2020. The Bringing Resilience to the Community Core session explored examples of energy resilience and its challenging intersection with disadvantaged communities across the country. While proposing a framework for equity in energy resilience will not be explored in this article, this a crucial consideration that organizations should incorporate into their program planning.

Citizens, communities, and utilities are all stakeholders adversely affected by power outages, and therefore can avoid significant costs through preparation. The high cost of resilience planning for these three impacted groups is often a major barrier impeding preparedness for extreme events. However, Jared Leader, head of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) Microgrid Working Group and panelist from the session, highlighted how mutual benefits across stakeholders can lead to shared investments that deliver value to all involved parties (illustrated in Figure 1).

Equitable resilience involves a state of disaster preparedness that levels accessibility to backup power options so that all citizens in a community, regardless of income, have access to electricity in the event of a grid outage.

Figure 1. Microgrid Resilience Value Stacking

Source: Smart Electric Power Alliance and Cadmus, 2020. Source: Smart Electric Power Alliance and Cadmus, 2020.

Dangers of Power Outages

Significant as the costs of preparedness are, the dangers of inaction are even higher, as 47% of the total deaths associated with Hurricane Irma can be linked to power outages.[1]

See, for example, the following life-threatening risks and documented impacts of power outages:

  • Increased mortality due to non-functioning appliances:
    • 5 million Medicare beneficiaries rely on electricity to power life-saving medical equipment.[2]
    • Plug-in fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors may be unable to detect an event.
    • The inability of temperature-control devices to regulate indoor climates may leave vulnerable populations at risk of temperature-related dangers.
    • Increased mortality due to inoperable communication networks and supply-chains:
      • Access to critical information may be disabled due to lack of and inability to recharge mobile devices.
      • Access to resupply materials for fuel-driven backup power devices may be inaccessible, exacerbating outage durations. Residents in Puerto Rico regularly queued up for seven or more hours during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to refuel automobiles and backup generators.[4]

Equitable Resilience Case Studies

Based on the impact of increasing climate-based natural disasters that disproportionally impact vulnerable populations without access to key resources, there is a need to consider solutions that provide equitable coverage for these at-risk populations. These could take the form of enhanced community shelters or the distribution of backup power devices across households. Planning efforts can and should be coordinated via utility, state, community, and individual collaboration. The next section covers several specific resilience concerns for affected regions and solutions that have been implemented.

Oregon and the Cascadian Subduction Zone

Oregon is an example of a state that has begun the development of a proactive resilience plan. The state has invested significant resources in preparation for a catastrophic event by publishing The Oregon Resilience Plan[5] and creating a State Resilience Officer position to direct and implement resilience goal-setting for the state. Located in an area that geologists refer to as the Ring of Fire, Oregon is especially vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis; its risk to these natural disasters is low in frequency but high in magnitude. While Oregon has not endured a large earthquake since 1700, state officials estimate it could incur a quake with a magnitude surpassing 9.0 causing a tsunami up to 100 feet high and an electrical outage lasting multiple months.[6] Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management encourages people to be independently prepared for a minimum of two weeks to lessen the strain on emergency responders who will need to focus limited resources on injured and other vulnerable populations immediately following a disaster.[7] Oregonian communities have adopted and embraced the term “two-weeks ready” and focused community preparations to withstand disasters of such a duration. Session panelist Jeni Hall, an Advanced Solar Program Manager with Energy Trust of Oregon, applauded the state’s proactive resilience efforts and stressed that low income and other vulnerable populations will be especially reliant on their respective community’s preparation at the time of a catastrophe. Vulnerable populations are least able to relocate to a hotel or to stay with family even during smaller and more locally focused disasters and more likely to make use of community shelters or other disaster relief services provided by the community.

California and the Self-Generation Incentive Program

California’s grid has faced adversity in providing reliable electricity recently as Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) are a key wildfire prevention strategy in the near term. Affected areas of PSPS include areas at high risk of wildfire as well as areas serviced by the same transmission and distribution lines that must be deenergized to prevent the fires. According to California Public Utility Commission data, there were 2,290 PSPS events in California during 2019, with an average shutoff spanning 1.9 days and impacting 1,210 customers.[8] Given the high up-front capital cost of backup generation power, a limiting barrier for the low- to moderate-income population, traditionally only affluent residents have been able to afford backup power. PSPS events leave those without backup power or preparedness plans at the mercy of their community.

In the session, Seth Mullendore of the Clean Energy Group described California’s ongoing efforts to combat PSPS and its effects on disadvantaged communities as an example of a reactive equitable incentive program. In efforts to compensate for the additional burden on the disadvantaged population, California has repurposed a portion of its Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to help offset the cost of energy storage assets. The program was established in 2001 to incentivize customer-owned electricity generation but has since pivoted to incentivize energy storage. Currently, the program enhances inclusion by providing an extra incentive and program carve-out for customers in the Equity Resilience category, which encompasses low-income individuals and critical facilities at risk of PSPS.[9] The total rebate for applicants in the Equity Resilience category should offset a majority, if not all, of the cost of a residential lithium-ion battery, which generally ranges from $11,000 to $18,000 per system.[10] California’s repurposed SGIP has led to a significant amount of energy resilience for the disadvantaged community. Thus far, the SGIP has contributed to the deployment of 3,800 projects comprising 48 MW and 144 MWh of energy storage,[11] totaling nearly $400 million in allocated funds specifically under the Equity Resilience category.[12]

Additionally, utilities are developing their own programs to lessen the frequency and magnitude of PSPS events. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) recently unveiled its Community Microgrid Enablement Program. The program is designed to target PG&E’s grid enhancements to support local communities’ resilience capabilities and is a next step from the large solar-plus-storage Redwood Coast Airport Renewable Energy Microgrid project. However, the development of microgrids can take a lot of time to complete while wildfire risk could surface anytime. To address that need, PG&E began deploying temporary mobile microgrid solutions this year at critical facilities, substations, and community resource centers.[13]

Puerto Rico and Hurricanes Irma and Maria

A supporting example of the benefits of solar-plus-storage resilience stems from Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017 and sent the entire island into a grid blackout. Six weeks later, only 30% of electricity had been restored.[14] It took until August 2018, almost a year later, to restore power to all 1.5 million customers.[15] Not only did many households lack backup power, many critical facilities such as hospitals, grocery stores, and schools did not have sufficient backup power to operate at required levels during such a long period. Additionally, many Puerto Ricans were left without access to potable water. A George Washington University study estimated that there were 2,975 excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in the six months following the storm, and the risk of dying was 60% higher for those in the poorest municipalities.[16] While the report does not speculate on the main causes of the deaths following the storm, lack of access to electricity and potable water likely played a part.

In theory, grid resilience should be a core focus point for both communities and utilities, since utilities can avoid lost revenues from electricity sales and high costs associated with power restoration. In rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electric grid, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) suggested splitting Puerto Rico into eight mini-grid regions supported by hundreds of megawatts of solar-plus-storage, as well as some natural gas. The Puerto Rican Regulator rejected PREPA’s proposal on the grounds that it was too reliant on natural gas, a nonlocal resource that would require shipping to the island. Session panelist Mullendore emphasized Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel resupply issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as a drawback of fossil fuel-powered backup.

Following the PREPA proposal’s rejection, grid management services in Puerto Rico were ceded to a new third-party company that submitted an integrated resource plan-a hybrid between the traditional and decentralized grid models.[17] Additionally, smaller individual customer systems installed behind the meter are often faster and cheaper to construct than larger microgrid or mini-grid projects that require a lot of permitting and careful review.[18]

Meanwhile, many charities and solar companies have made donations to Puerto Rican communities since Hurricane Maria with an emphasis on solar-plus-storage projects. Beneficiaries have targeted community centers as donation recipients to efficiently improve resilience for as many Puerto Ricans for future catastrophes.[19] There are 412 donated projects at the time of this publication, totaling over 12 MWh of energy storage.

Figure 2 displays the distribution of donated projects across Puerto Rico’s territory since Hurricane Maria. The donation efforts have focused on high-density population areas but have supported rural areas of Puerto Rico as well.

Figure 2. The Puerto Rico Solar Map: Solar-Plus-Storage Projects at Critical Facilities Since Hurricane Maria

Source: https://www.puertoricosolarmap.org/ Source: https://www.puertoricosolarmap.org/

Looking Forward

While there are not many programs aimed at spurring low-to-moderate-income adoption of solar-plus-storage solutions, there are numerous grid and public health benefits associated with the deployment of solar-based assets for resilience. Given the high capital expenditure currently required for energy storage, it seems that a large portion of the expense of the asset must be offset to encourage disadvantaged community centers or low-to-moderate income individual adoption. Incentive programs like California’s SGIP and joint efforts with utilities and communities that can capture mutual benefits of resilience are two proven methods to enhance community resilience.

Reactive programs that originate in regions recovering from disasters can provide valuable insights that communities and utilities should use to proactively build equitable resilience and lessen the indirect impacts of future power outages. One of those insights is clear: microgrid development is a highly appealing strategy that provides significant value stacking in the pursuit of clean, resilient, and equitable energy supplies.

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Sources Cited

[1]      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 3, 2018. “Deaths Related to Hurricane Irma – Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, September 4-October 10, 2017.” https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6730a5.htm

[2]      U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed November, 2020. “HHS emPOWER Map 3.0.” https://empowermap.hhs.gov/

[3]      Roth, Sammy (Los Angeles Times). August 17, 2020. “California blackouts are Public Utilities Commission’s fault, grid operator says.” https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2020-08-17/public-utilities-commission-to-blame-for-blackouts-caiso-says

[4]      Graham, David; Respaut, Robin; Resnick-Ault, Jessica (Reuters). September 27, 2017. “For desperate Puerto Ricans, fuel a precious commodity.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-puertorico-fuel/for-desperate-puerto-ricans-fuel-a-precious-commodity-idUSKCN1C216B

[5]      Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. February 2013. The Oregon Resilience Plan. https://www.oregon.gov/oem/Documents/Oregon_Resilience_Plan_Final.pdf

[6]      Oregon.gov. Accessed November, 2020. “Cascadia Subduction Zone.” https://www.oregon.gov/oem/hazardsprep/Pages/Cascadia-Subduction-Zone.aspx

[7]      Oregon.gov. Accessed November 2020. “2 Weeks Ready.” https://www.oregon.gov/oem/hazardsprep/Pages/2-Weeks-Ready.aspx

[8]      California Public Utilities Commission. Accessed November 2020. “CPUC PSPS Rollup_Oct. 2013 through Dec. 31, 2019.”

[9]      Self-Generation Incentive Program. Accessed November 1, 2020. “Program Metrics.” https://www.selfgenca.com/home/program_metrics/.

[10]     EnergySage. Accessed November 2020. “How Much Does Solar Storage Cost?” https://www.energysage.com/solar/solar-energy-storage/what-do-solar-batteries-cost/

[11]     California Public Utilities Commission. October 26, 2020. “Self-Generation Incentive Program.” Weekly Projects Report. https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/sgip/

[12]     California Public Utilities Commission. Accessed November 2020. “CPUC PSPS Rollup_Oct. 2013 through Dec. 31, 2019.”

[13]     Pacific Gas and Electric. June 11, 2020. “PG&E Strengthening Community Resilience with Comprehensive Microgrid Solutions.” https://www.pge.com/en/about/newsroom/newsdetails/index.page?title=20200611_pge_strengthening_community_resilience_with_comprehensive_microgrid_solutions

[14]     Direct Relief. Accessed November 2020. Energy Resilience in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria https://directrelief.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=2ee2504b791d4e4f9661d39136d50331

[15]     Ibid.

[16]     George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. June 08, 2018. “GW Researchers: 2,975 Excess Deaths Linked to Hurricane Maria.” https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/gw-researchers-2975-excess-deaths-linked-hurricane-maria

[17]     Merchant, Emma. Greentech Media. June 25, 2020. “Puerto Rico Selects New Grid Manager, Prompting Concerns.” https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/puerto-rico-selects-new-grid-manager-concern-follows

[18]       Lewis, Milford (Clean Energy Group). September 24, 2018. “A Plan to Use Federal Recovery Funds for Resilient Power in Puerto Rico.” pp 12. https://www.cleanegroup.org/ceg-resources/resource/a-plan-to-use-federal-recovery-funds-for-resilient-power-in-puerto-rico/

[19]     Direct Relief. Accessed November 2020. “The Puerto Rico Solar Map.” https://www.puertoricosolarmap.org/