by Lew Milford
With its recent executive orders on environmental justice, the Biden administration has put energy equity at the front and center of its domestic policy agenda. The challenge now is to put these principles into practice.
One place to start is with a new federal plan for battery storage — an emerging technology that can be put to multiple uses across several agency programs. The Biden administration has an historic opportunity to accelerate deployment of this clean energy technology, especially in low-income areas and communities of color.
Battery storage is used to bank excess energy generated by renewable sources, such as solar and wind, so the lights stay on when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. By defeating the problem of “intermittency,” battery storage is key to the market expansion of renewable energy technologies. Solar plus battery storage systems provide resiliency during power outages, which have become more frequent in the era of climate change. They can also reduce electric bills and even generate revenue.
Typically, new energy technologies first go to those who can easily afford them. Then, years later, when costs have come down, they sometimes reach those who need them the most. This is true of battery storage: the systems now in place in the U.S. are mostly in corporate settings or high-end residences; too few are in low-income and frontline communities.
But those neglected communities have the most to gain from this new technology, given the negative effects of COVID-19 and climate change. With COVID, homes now serve triple duty as offices, schools, and housing — losing power can be disastrous to all three. Batteries provide a safety net for people with electricity-dependent home health care equipment, and make entire communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather, wildfires, and accompanying power outages.
This is where the problem becomes an opportunity. In partnership with environmental justice groups, my organization drafted a plan to overcome years of historic underinvestment in clean energy in low-and-moderate income communities. Based on that work, we have identified several strategies the Biden administration can implement now:
Advance battery storage in underserved markets: The Department of Energy (DOE) can create a “Resilient Power” program that would provide federal grants, technical assistance, and other measures to advance battery storage in underserved energy markets. Dedicated funding could provide low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color with access to “Technical Assistance Funds.” This support could be used to conduct feasibility assessments, analyze costs and benefits, and encourage community ownership of battery storage systems.
Provide resilience at multifamily affordable housing: DOE can work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide grants and other support to housing developers and owners, encouraging the installation of solar and battery storage in affordable housing. Affordable housing represents a critical place of refuge for those unable to relocate during climate disasters and extended power outages. Superstorm Sandy, for example, left tens of thousands of low-income apartment dwellers stranded for days without any access to power and basic services, a travesty we can avoid in the future.
Support emergency preparedness and response: DOE can partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop an “Energy Resilience Funding Program” that would provide community development, disaster preparedness and disaster recovery funds to install solar and storage at critical locations around the country — including shelters, community support services, and other facilities. These systems would provide electricity to power essential community services in the event of storms and power outages, protecting the poor and the medically vulnerable who are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters.
Bring resilient power to Federal Qualified Health Centers: DOE can work with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other relevant federal agencies to ensure that the more than 14,000 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) have 24/7 reliable electricity with solar and battery storage technologies. This is especially important as the Biden administration has tapped FQHCs to spearhead distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. Already, power outages have caused losses of vaccines at centers that had no backup power, a typical problem that could get worse.
Improve health outcomes in the event of power outages: DOE and HHS can also provide coverage through Medicare or Medicaid for battery storage as an eligible technology to protect medically vulnerable populations with electricity-dependent home health care equipment and other critical devices, such as refrigeration for medicines and heating and cooling during extreme temperatures. The agencies should offer incentives to private companies to encourage technological innovations in this market.
Replace peaker plants to enhance public health. DOE should create a new “Peaker Replacement Program” to phase out the more than 1,000 polluting peaker power plants that are located predominately in low-income communities and communities of color. While peaker plants typically operate no more than a small fraction of the year, they are major contributors to local air pollution, particularly nitrogen oxides (NOx), which could result in severe health impacts in surrounding communities. Over time, clean renewable energy paired with battery storage and efficiency measures could replace these outdated, fossil-fueled units.
Support the development and replication of innovative incentives and financing for battery storage. New utility programs in New England provide incentives for battery storage in homes and businesses as part of state energy efficiency programs. These programs offer a creative way to finance battery access and improve resiliency. Replicating these programs nationwide could bring battery storage to currently under-represented sectors, such as affordable housing, nonprofits, and other community-serving facilities. There are also emerging financing tools to overcome financial risk in low-and-moderate income markets. These include loan guarantees as a match for foundation investments and grants.
Bring clean energy to modular homes. Poorly designed, energy-inefficient systems plague modular homes, which are common in many rural areas in the country. DOE and HUD should look to emerging models (as in Vermont) where modular homes are designed with solar and battery storage systems. These systems provide residents with backup power and zero energy costs, while enabling the local utility to manage peak energy demand and reduce cost for all customers.
With practical innovations like these, President Biden can make good on the sweeping promise of his executive orders. By accelerating the deployment of battery storage — especially in neglected communities — the administration can bring the benefits of clean energy to those who need it most.
Lewis Milford is president and founder of Clean Energy Group.