The science is unequivocal; in order to curb the worst impacts of climate change, we must transition off dirty energy immediately. But with extreme weather becoming the norm across the United States, communities and companies are in need of backup power solutions that can be deployed today.
Here’s the rub: The cheapest and most available energy resilience options are powered by fossil fuels — which generate the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that fuel extreme weather.
California weighs energy resilience against decarbonization
California, which has a goal of transitioning to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045, is struggling with balancing energy resilience and decarbonization in real time.
Last week, the California Energy Commission (CEC) approved licenses for five temporary gas-fired power units to help with anticipated electricity shortfalls in the coming months as heatwaves, droughts and wildfires continue to drive up electricity consumption. The move follows a July emergency declaration from California Gov. Gavin Newsom designed to accelerate clean energy project deployments. In the short term, officials acknowledged, some backup power solutions will be powered by fossil fuels.
Earlier in the year, California regulators balked at the idea of adding new GHG-emitting energy sources. As the summer of extreme weather rolls on, officials are faced with the difficult choice of alleviating suffering today or curbing catastrophe tomorrow. And, as is often the case in politics, the short-term gains won.
Losing power during extreme weather isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a health and safety risk.
At the same time, regulators are working to streamline cleaner resilience solutions. The CEC has been directed to expedite approval of demand response programs, and energy storage and clean energy projects. The California Public Utility Commission also issued a scoping memo last week to see how microgrids could alleviate energy shortfalls, the fourth step of a multiyear microgrid proceeding. What’s more, the regulators are working to better integrate distributed energy resources into the grid — often, they currently face long interconnection times.
From the perspective of the regulatory process, insiders tell me this process is lightning-fast. From a climate chaos perspective, it feels excruciatingly slow. (I wrote about my frustration at the slow speed of regulatory changes one year ago.)
Companies face clean energy versus resilience dilemma
California isn’t the only entity facing the Faustian bargain of resilience versus clean energy. Several corporations with ambitious clean energy goals are turning to fossil fuel backup systems to keep operations running in the face of climate chaos.
Stop & Shop, a New England grocery chain, in early 2020 announced plans to convert 40 of its locations in Massachusetts to Bloom natural gas fuel cell microgrids. And grocery H-E-B installed 45 Enchanted Rock natural gas microgrids for locations in Texas (which kept the locations in operation during Hurricane Harvey in 2017).
To be clear, these natural gas fuel cells are cleaner when generating electricity than other fossil fuel options. Bloom Energy says that its Stop & Shop microgrids, for example, are expected to cut carbon emissions by 15,000 metric tons annually. H-E-B previously used diesel generators as a backup solution, which are decidedly dirtier than the natural gas fuel cell solution when generating energy.
The issue is natural gas itself — aka methane — is a potent greenhouse gas, and leaks during its production, transport and storage erode its "cleaner" advantage. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report zoomed in on methane as the new big enemy in the climate battle, saying "strong, rapid and sustained reductions" are needed to stave off the worst of climate impacts.
In other words, while natural gas backup may be better from a climate perspective, that does not a climate solution make. And further investments into infrastructure running off natural gas will only make winding it down even more politically sticky.
Extreme weather is breaking our fragile energy systems
Power outages jumped 73 percent in the U.S. last year— from 770 million hours in 2019 to 1.33 billion in 2020, according to PowerOutage.us, an aggregator of utility blackout data. According to the Department of Energy, the number of "electric disturbance events" reached 383 last year, more than double the number in 2017, with 43 percent of them caused by weather.
On the ground, that looks like tropical storm Henri, which left more than 50,000 people without power in New England. Utility public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), planned power outages to reduce the risk of wildfires, are common for hundreds of thousands of people in California and now Oregon. And cold snaps and heatwaves have left millions without power in Texas and California this year alone.
Losing power during extreme weather isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a health and safety risk. During June’s heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, about 600 more people died in Washington and Oregon than would have been typical. At least 210 people died in Texas during the state’s February freeze.
From an economic perspective, losing electricity is incredibly expensive. Businesses can’t operate, with companies losing thousands of dollars in sales and food spoilage. Exact amounts are hard to calculate. Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, estimated that a 24-hour outage that affected 600,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers in 2019 cost small businesses $1.8 billion.
And those economic costs don’t even include the price tag associated with cleaning up after extreme weather.
Right now, the federal government is considering an infrastructure bill that, in part, is designed to update the U.S. electricity grid. While much has been written about the cost of doing that, a broader lens makes clear: The far more expensive and radical option is not investing in clean, resilient energy solutions.