Use Solar and Storage to Prevent Future Outages — Learn from the US East Coast

With its recent massive power outage, people in San Francisco now know what it’s like to live on the East Coast.

The outage in the city blacked out businesses, transportation and homes, with damage costs likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a version of events that we in the East have faced for years. Eight million people lost power in SuperStorm Sandy a few years ago. Millions were without power earlier in New York City. Other power outages frequently occur up and down the East Coast.

These outages have many causes. Transformers catch on fire and kill power lines. Storms, driven by climate change, produce massive floods and disrupt power. Power lines come down due to weather and animals.

Whatever the cause, power resiliency is a major problem in the East. The problems are so serious that policy makers have looked to new technologies like batteries and solar. They want distributed power that can ride out outages and keep the power on.

Those outages have led East Coast states to come up with new policies to encourage adoption of these technologies. States such as Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have new public programs to pay for batteries paired with solar in critical facilities like affordable housing, hospitals and community centers.

This public funding often goes to batteries connected with solar that can power buildings when the grid goes down. In other words, the East Coast encourages “resilient power” for solar and storage, to keep the lights on and businesses operating if the grid goes out. They are funding batteries with solar that can not only deliver clean power and reduce power bills but also protect critical electrical loads in the event of a power outage.

That’s not the policy in California. 

California, oddly enough, is behind the curve when it comes to using these new energy technologies. They are not being used to solve problems like the San Francisco outage.

In California, policy officials generally downplay the risk of power outages and the need to use new technologies like battery storage to deal with them. As a nonprofit that advocates for more energy storage, we have had numerous conversations with state officials and industry; neither see much need for batteries and solar for power resiliency.

“We don’t have a problem with resiliency or outages like out East” is a phrase we heard repeatedly over the last few years.

In California, batteries are generally used to reduce electric bills but not to keep the power on when outages occur. The state gives out large public incentives for solar power and for batteries, but not so they operate when the grid goes down.

There is no large-scale incentive program to pair solar with batteries to keep the lights on, which could have made a big difference in San Francisco. Power resiliency is not now on the policy agenda in the state.

That point bears repeating. In the hundreds of thousands of storage and solar projects installed in California, few are set up to keep running when the grid does down. When the grid fails as it did in San Francisco, any solar system also likely failed, unless it was connected to batteries that disconnect and operate independently from the grid.

The result is this: most of the solar power the state has is useless to provide electricity in an outage. Solar is a stranded resiliency asset in California, a huge lost opportunity to protect people and businesses.

When it comes to power resiliency, California needs to catch up with the East Coast. It needs to reform its policies to encourage batteries to be paired with solar to provide resilient power in the event of an outage, while also saving money. It’s easy to do both.

It could start with pending cases — such as AB 693 — before the Public Utility Commission. There, the commission staff seem reluctant to provide incentives to pair storage with solar in affordable housing, were those technologies could protect the most vulnerable among us. The outage should cause the commission to reconsider its reluctance.

California is usually in the lead on clean energy. But when it comes to power outages, resiliency and using batteries with solar, it is far behind and needs to catch up fast.

Lead image credit: Travis Wise | Flickr

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Lewis Milford is president and founder of Clean Energy Group (CEG) and Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), two national nonprofit organizations that work with state, federal, and international organizations to promote clean energy technology, policy, finance, and innovation. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He works with many public agencies and private investors in the United States and Europe that finance clean energy. He is frequently asked to appear as an expert panelist at energy conferences throughout the United States and Europe. His articles on clean energy have appeared in many print and online publications including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Huffington Post, and Renewable Energy World. Before founding these two organizations, he was Vice President of Conservation Law Foundation, New England’s leading environmental organization. Prior to that, he was a government prosecutor on the Love Canal hazardous waste case in New York and previously directed the Public Interest Law Clinic at American University Law School where he represented veterans on a range of legal issues, including gaining compensation for their harmful expose to Agent Orange and nuclear radiation. He has a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.

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