In summary

Clean energy and backup power at the household and community level can supply electricity when the grid goes down.

By Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is a senior scientist with Physicians, Scientists and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute based in Oakland.

Lee Ann Hill, Special to CalMatters

Lee Ann Hill is director of energy and health for PSE Healthy Energy.

Days before Thanksgiving, unseasonably warm weather brought high winds, red flag warnings and the threat of public safety power outages to residents across Los Angeles and San Diego. In recent years, climate-driven weather events have extended fire risk and power outages deep into winter, leaving millions of Californians without power for multiple days

More frequent and prolonged outages risk more than a turkey dinner: without electricity to power medical devices, air filters and other protective infrastructure, climate impacts such as drought, heat waves, wildfires and prolonged exposure to toxic smoke, pose significant public health risks.

While California energy regulators prepare to vote on increasing capacity of the utility grid, locally-sourced clean energy can provide an essential foundation for resilience. Clean energy and backup power at the household and community level, such as solar paired with batteries, can supply electricity when the grid goes down. 

By growing these technologies in and with disadvantaged and climate-vulnerable communities, California policymakers can ensure climate resilience investments prepare at-risk populations for short-term disaster response while lowering health and climate-damaging pollution over the long term.

Individuals are making significant investments in personal resilience against smoke, the pandemic and power outages. Sales of air purifiers exploded in 2020, and the number of California homes with air conditioners grew by 7% between 2015 and 2019. In the short term, these technologies serve as important climate adaptation tools for families who can afford them, but for California’s 12.4 million low-income residents these investments are often out of reach. What’s more, many of these devices increase our demand for electricity, exacerbating the risk of brownouts and power outages. 

Expanding clean energy in low-income and disadvantaged communities can help boost resilience while lowering risk, helping to meet increased electricity demand, decreasing power outages and providing backup power, all while lowering our climate impact. However, California’s disadvantaged communities face persistent barriers to clean energy: solar adoption rates are eight times lower in California’s 5% most disadvantaged communities versus least disadvantaged communities. 

The California Legislature’s recent approval of $100 million to fund resilience hubs in 2021 is a good start, but at $2.50 per Californian it is insufficient. Other existing programs to expand clean energy storage tend to focus on economics and grid support rather than providing power for off-grid operations needed for resilience. What’s more, programs for climate-vulnerable and low-income communities are consistently underfunded and oversubscribed. Policy and funding must expand to support multi-day resilience, including:

  • Equipment-specific energy storage, including mobile solar panels for longer-term outages, to support life-sustaining medical and mobility equipment for the medically vulnerable. 
  • Household local clean energy and backup power, especially in disadvantaged, climate-vulnerable and low-income communities.
  • Community resilience hubs with solar and battery storage, and the training to procure and operate it in order to support critical functions.

Investments in local clean energy may cost more up front than traditional disaster response strategies like temporary cooling centers and diesel generators, but climate change is not a temporary threat. Recent science on the public health dimensions of wildfires, for example, shows that climate change is driving more frequent and prolonged exposure to toxic smoke and amplifying health risks for the next generation

For disadvantaged communities like the Bay Area’s Richmond and Los Angeles’ Wilmington neighborhoods, wildfire smoke and other climate impacts are further compounded by decades of exposure to air pollution from fossil fuels and some of the highest asthma rates in the state. 

Pilot projects across the state, including our partnership with Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and the Strategic Growth Council on community resilience hubs, are already modeling ways to use clean energy for climate resilience in disadvantaged communities. Increasing the pace and scale of these efforts can lower stress on our energy system, reduce exposure to health-harming emissions and help communities prepare for whatever challenges climate change brings their way. 

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