Three years ago, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the United States, killing hundreds of people and leaving millions more in the dark. Three months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled his new battery storage technology to help enable more clean energy and address climate change.
There’s an important connection between those two events.
For the thousands of people in affordable and public housing who were stranded in their homes during Superstorm Sandy because the electricity went out and backup diesel generators failed, there may well be new technology solutions to protect them from future power outages -- battery storage systems like the kind companies such as Tesla are now offering to high-end commercial customers.
Solar PV combined with battery storage (solar-plus-storage) systems could keep the power on during outages, replacing the outdated backup diesel generators that failed miserably during Sandy’s prolonged power failures. Clean, resilient power is a necessity in a world frequently impacted by severe weather.
For those whose lives depend on access to electricity -- for life support systems, elevators, and adequate heating and cooling during extreme weather --solar-plus-storage technologies could well be the safest, most dependable power source. More resilient power is especially important to protect vulnerable populations like the elderly, the disabled, and the economically disadvantaged.
Yet Musk’s focus for the potential customer base for this new energy storage technology is on large commercial entities and wealthy technophiles -- a good way to build the early markets for clean energy and storage. These populations are always the first to adopt innovative technologies.
But as Sandy and other disasters painfully show, these are not the groups who need solar-plus-storage technologies the most.
A new report by Clean Energy Group has drawn an exciting conclusion that may be the key to bridging this technology gap: solar-plus-storage systems could be an economically viable option for affordable housing -- not just in the future, but now.
In the first public economic analysis of solar-plus-storage systems in affordable housing, Clean Energy Group’s report, Resilience for Free, shows that these systems can both reduce costs and increase power resiliency.
The report illustrates a range of cost-effective opportunities to install solar-plus-storage in affordable housing throughout the country, based on real energy data from three U.S. cities: Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Solar-plus-storage systems can power a building’s essential electricity loads during outages as well as enable low-income housing developers to generate significant electric-bill savings by reducing utility demand charges and generating revenue by providing valuable grid services.
Resilient solar-plus-storage systems can achieve building cost savings on par with those from standalone solar PV systems and energy-efficiency measures. And those savings and revenues can pay off the costs of these systems well within the lifetime of the equipment, meaning the resilience benefit is essentially free.
With these cost-effective technologies, there is now no economic or technical excuse to leave low-income and vulnerable people at risk from long-duration power outages in the future.
It is true that clean energy technology announcements this year from companies like Tesla and SolarCity have done an exceptional job of connecting solar and battery storage in the public’s mind as a potent economic and climate mitigation strategy. However, so far, it's mostly been large, private-sector commercial customers that want to reduce their utility bills that have been the focus.
The challenge now is to bend the technology trend for solar-plus-storage systems to serve public needs, such as providing resilient power to affordable housing and other essential public-safety services in low-income communities.
Vulnerable residents and those who depend on critical public facilities don’t have time to wait for improved technologies to trickle down to their communities -- not when they can be economically feasible today and mean the difference between safety and harm, protection and tragedy.
With the right market structures and incentives, solar-plus-storage systems can change the way we think about clean energy. It can enable more deployment of solar PV to benefit low-income communities. It can power critical building loads and emergency-response facilities during a grid outage. It can provide economic benefits to help low-income housing developers to build safer buildings. And it can greatly expand the use of solar in many customer markets.
Solar-plus-storage need not only be a cost-saving tool for private companies or wealthy individuals. It can also be a public good that can make affordable housing more energy-resilient, provide an economic return, and protect vulnerable residents at little to no net cost.
Three years after Superstorm Sandy, the hardest-hit communities are not only still recovering -- they are still vulnerable. It’s time to make sure that they and communities like them nationwide are protected when the next disaster strikes.
Lewis Milford is president of Clean Energy Group and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution