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The many faces of energy resilience

Energy and Diversity

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

This series explores how clean energy can deliver on finance and corporate social and governance goals alongside climate and environmental benefits.

"Resilience" is a powerful word in 2020. Fires, floods, pestilence, pandemic — I don’t know about you all, but I was raised in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist Church and my Revelations bingo card is just about full.

Thinking about the idea of resilience as it relates to equity and energy systems merely as the ability to keep the lights on, however, is missing a powerful opportunity to right the scales of justice. Large corporate energy buyers and utilities, in particular, hold the opportunity to build better and make things right.

On resilience

The term "resilience" can be applied to a vast array of natural, built and social systems and refers to the ability to recover function following a significant, potentially unpredictable disruption. As it relates to energy, moving away from long transmission lines and centralized power plants burning extracted, polluting fuels and towards a distributed system that combines local energy storage with renewables improves resilience — consistent with the principles of biomimicry. That’s the vision.

But how is that vision valued? Resilient energy systems combining renewables, microgrids and energy storage are being deployed by corporations and other institutions that can assign an economic value to resilience as a service, by residential customers who can afford it and by utilities that benefit from the resulting infrastructure and other cost reductions.

If we define the value of resilience in such narrow economic terms, however, we will build a clean energy dystopia. But we can choose a better way.

Do justice

Our energy systems, like most legacy systems, are infused with racial injustices that do particular harm to Black communities, families and individuals because many of our laws and institutions were designed for that purpose.

Systems produce outcomes according to the values on which they are founded, and the outcomes are clear. As the NAACP has highlighted, 68 percent of Black and African-American individuals live within 30 miles of a coal plant and are twice as likely to die from asthma than white Americans. Only 1.1 percent of those employed in the energy industry are Black, while Black households comprise more than half of those paying 10 percent or more of their entire income to keep the lights on. Moreover, Black and Latino households pay almost three times as much for energy as higher income and white households. 

If we define the value of resilience in such narrow economic terms, we will build a clean energy dystopia. But we can choose a better way.

Just because you didn’t write the rules that made things so broken doesn’t absolve you of accountability to fix them.

As my colleague Chandra Farley, Just Energy Director with Partnership for Southern Equity, has pointedly noted, Black people, communities of color and low-income communities are resilient because they have endured hundreds of years of systemic racism and disinvestment. Recognizing this, every decision maker leading an energy storage project can choose to do justice by understanding the value of resilience as encompassing more than the money.

Here are four examples of how to begin.

Communities can define their own resilient energy futures, anchored by colleges and universities. In service to the Atlanta University Center Consortium, Groundswell is supporting the design and development of an innovative Resilience Hub that celebrates the leadership of Atlanta’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Partnership for Southern Equity is on the team to ensure that the voice and vision of the surrounding neighborhoods, among the most energy-burdened in the city, are the priority. Enabled through NREL’s Solar Energy Innovation Network, this project is tackling how to deploy community-led energy resilience in a regulated, utility-driven energy market.

Large corporate energy buyers can share resilience as a service to the communities surrounding their facilities and installations. Doing so in a way that aligns with local community needs and values requires building relationships with local communities and listening to and meeting their needs. John Kliem, formerly the head of the U.S. Navy’s Resilient Energy Program Office, oversaw an early example of this approach in collaboration with the Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative in Hawaii. The resulting solar-plus-storage facility, recognized by a 2019 U.S. Department of Energy award, improves energy security for the local Naval facility while supporting local goals.

Kliem, who now leads federal energy strategy for Johnson Controls, also has identified co-location of energy storage facilities to share resilience with critical infrastructure such as hospitals and municipal water pumping stations as opportunities.

Cities, municipalities and other jurisdictions can use their planning authority to embed community-driven resilience at the building level. The city of Baltimore is helping to lead the way. Funded through a Maryland Energy Administration Grant, Baltimore is working with Groundswell and energy storage innovators A.F. Mensah to identify and develop up to 20 local Resilience Hubs across the city that will host solar and energy storage installations and provide refuge for local community members in case of extreme weather or other events.

Importantly, funded collaborations such as this support critical place-based R&D into optimal approaches to financing larger scale deployment while navigating local, state and regional regulations that impact siting, interconnection and access to revenue opportunities such as selling stored power back to the grid at peak.  

Rural electric cooperatives are demonstrating how utilities can deploy energy storage that reduces electric costs for their member customers. Curtis Wynn, CEO of the Roanoke Electric Cooperative and president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, is studying offering energy storage as a service to industrial customers and sharing the resulting cost reductions from reducing peak demand with his residential customers, who are largely low- and moderate-income households. Using smart hot water heaters for energy storage offers similar potential benefits to lower income customers, which is just one of the innovative ideas being advanced by the Beneficial Electrification League.

Towards regeneration

Building energy resilience can do more than keep the lights on for those who can pay for it. Resilience can be reparative, and the resulting investments can support the regeneration of communities that have been held back by institutionalized systems of oppression.

We have a corporate as well as an individual responsibility to do justice. We are called to advocate for and share what we have with others so that everyone is treated equally and with dignity, and it’s the privilege of our generation to be alive at a time when we can make things right.

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