Blog Post

Covid-19, Blackouts and Wildfires Demand New Energy Policy Initiatives

Covid-19, blackouts and increasing wildfires put CA residents at extreme risk. Dramatic steps to modernize our power grid with distributed customer-sited generation and storage are needed to mitigate these growing hazards

Covid-19, rolling blackouts and the potential for a far more extreme wildfire season are putting Californians in danger. We need to take dramatic steps to modernize our power grid to meet these challenges. Aggressively incentivizing distributed, customer-sited energy generation and storage will free us from relying solely on the transmission and distribution lines that must be shut down during “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” that are dangerous and threaten our health, safety and economic wellbeing.

Continued drought, light snowpack, and severe winds have led to a “significant” wildfire threat this year. We’ve already seen nearly 2,800 wildfires by mid-June – that’s 50% more than the 5-year average – leading to predictions that we’ll face even more of the damaging so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) than last year. Yet PG&E has a long way to go in cutting vegetation and installing cameras and sensors to reduce the fires started by its own equipment. We can’t wait the three or more years that utilities outlined last year in wildfire mitigation plans.

California Governor Strike Force Report: Over 8000 fires caused by climate change annually versus 500 due to utility infrastructure

Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken steps to address this emergency, pushing California utilities to invest $5 billion in those safety efforts. He appointed an energy team, and proposed adding $127 million for Emergency Services and $85.7 million in CalFire, despite the deep budget deficit and spending cuts prompted by the pandemic.

But our state must take steps to reduce the human and economic toll of extensive power shutoffs on top of Covid-19’s already devastating financial impact. Power shutoffs may be a necessary evil due to decades of utility negligence, but we must help communities build their own resilience with distributed, customer-sited generation and storage beyond the short-term expedience of shutoffs. A Manhattan Institute analysis found that the power shutoffs’ cost to customers was at least eight times greater than the benefits of reduced wildfire risk.

More importantly, it is critical that we go beyond these short-term measures to address the root cause of these wildfires: climate change.  Policy has focused on reducing the 2,000 fires caused by aging utility equipment over the past four years, but the overall number of wildfires caused by environmental factors has jumped from an average of 6,687 per year from 2007-2011 to an average of more than 8,300 over the past two years, according to Newsom’s 2019 Strike Force Report.   And all of California’s hottest years on record have come in the past decade.

These statistics demonstrate that shutting off power to prevent fires and bringing in thousands of diesel generators, which require constant refueling that  become impossible in emergencies and which spew the kind of pollution that further exacerbates climate change, making COVID-19 more lethal, are not immediately effective, in addition to being poor long-term solutions. We need systemic upgrades. We need to make no-regrets investments in alternatives to fossil fuels that can also keep the lights on for consumers.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs are even more dangerous during COVID-19

Prior to COVID-19, it could be argued that shutting off the grid in the name of “Public Safety” was one of the reasonable, short-term preventative steps. But given the thousands of homes and clinics running medical devices with businesses partially or completely shut down by the pandemic,  the economic losses caused by last summer’s shutoffs – estimated by Stanford’s Michael Wara at $2.5 billion in the first two weeks alone – render shutting off the grid a dangerous proposition, even as a short-term solution, with severe public health impacts.

The pandemic has exponentially intensified the human and economic risks posed by climate change, especially amid predictions of a second wave of infections this fall. Social distancing makes firefighting more dangerous. Hospitals must have four days of backup power for “essential functions” like surgeries, but that doesn’t cover other needs, such as medical refrigerators and air conditioning.  Hospital officials warn it won’t be enough if there are power shutoffs during a 2nd COVID-19 wave of infections. Only 44% of California medical clinics have any backup power. And most homes, where people might be on ventilators or have medication that will spoil if it is not kept cold, have no backup power at all.

The time is now to redesign our energy infrastructure and incentivize customer-sited assets for critical back-up

To protect Californians’ health and economy, Governor Newsom and his energy team need to develop and implement a vision for fundamentally redesigning our energy infrastructure. That means taking proactive  steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, cut CO2 and other GHG emissions, and incentivize the adoption of distributed clean energy generation and storage systems.  Sometimes called “microgrids”, customer-sited solar + storage located at homes, businesses, hospitals, schools even entire communities, can provide reliable, cost-effective energy throughout the year, but most importantly during Public Safety Power Shutoffs. These technologies have been developed right here in California and installed all over the world.  Statewide policies and incentive programs that would quickly pay for themselves, improve public safety, create jobs, transform our infrastructure, reduce pollution, and boost our economy need to be put in place now. California has been a global leader in innovation, public health, pollution control and climate protection. We can go much further – and we should. As we face two public safety emergencies simultaneously, now is the time.

As a top priority, California should speed up and add new incentives for customer-sited, renewable energy generation and storage systems that can keep the lights on, medical equipment running and our economy going when the grid fails or is intentionally “shutoff”.  Customer demand for these “Distributed Energy Resources” or DERs is high. But utilities have resisted them because DERs have not been part of their business model. So they have imposed greater barriers on microgrids and distributed energy resources than on any other energy resources, and have often taken a crippling 18 months to approve interconnection agreements. By that time, funding has often dried up or construction projects have moved on.

CA Public Utilities Commission makes positive steps, but we need to build on them

In June, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ordered utilities to streamline the interconnection of microgrids and resiliency systems, standardize the application process, speed up approvals and interconnections, and alter tariffs to place more value on resiliency. As utilities figure out how to better integrate them, distributed energy storage and solar systems will help utilities achieve their mandate to provide safe and reliable access to power, as well as reduce CO2 emissions, combat climate change, and provide resiliency for people and businesses, particularly during the pandemic And CPUC Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma applauded PG&E’s request for information “to identify non-diesel generators.”

These are positive steps. Now we need policymakers to build on them. The fact that these steps had to be taken now shows that California is far from reaching its potential in adopting customer-sited clean energy generation and storage technologies that have already been deployed here and abroad. While large-scale solar and wind farms are part of the answer to climate change, GHG and atmospheric CO2 reduction, they still rely on the centralized transmission and distribution lines at risk of failing or starting fires above the dry California landscape. Renewable energy generation and storage systems located at homes, schools, hospitals and businesses will allow utilities to shut off the power when necessary, without imposing health risks and economic hardships.

CA’s SGIP energy storage incentive program can help

In January, the CPUC also devoted more than half of the state’s $1.2 billion SGIP energy storage incentive program in the next four years to customers most at risk from wildfires and grid shutdowns. (We hope the PUC will resolve confusion and delays that have prevented that program from fulfilling its potential.) Clean energy providers have made solid progress in expanding their work into lower income neighborhoods and this needs to continue. If the state makes clean energy development a centerpiece of its economic stimulus strategy, it can take the opportunity to give added emphases to disadvantaged communities.

Elected officials can now accelerate the transformation of our energy system by shifting their focus from short-term emergency measures designed to protect our outdated, centralized infrastructure, toward accelerating clean energy installation and innovation. They could create requirements and incentives for utilities to partner with businesses and communities to develop distributed energy generation and storage systems. These incentives would more than pay for themselves.

8 policies that will help save money and jobs while creating energy resiliency and solve climate change

We call on state and federal officials to adopt the California Solar and Storage Association’s Economic Stimulus Plan of Action, which includes these eight immediate policy solutions: to drive jobs, save consumers money, create energy resiliency, and help solve climate change.

  1. Expand and Extend the Federal Investment Tax Credit
  2. Launch a Resilient Schools Initiative
  3. Cut Red Tape Through “No Touch” Permitting
  4. Launch One Million Solar-Charged Batteries Initiative
  5. Unleash the Power of Existing Ratepayer Storage & Equity Programs
  6. Remove Utility Barriers for Connecting Solar & Storage Systems
  7. Increase Efforts to Reduce Natural Gas Usage in Buildings
  8. Protect Clean Energy Investments from Unnecessary Local Taxes

These steps would create thousands of jobs, save consumers money, create energy resiliency, support local businesses, initiate “shovel ready” infrastructure projects, boost tax receipts, foster innovation, reduce pollution, address climate change, invigorate our economy, and improve public health.

These policies would bring far greater public and economic benefit than continuing the current practice of deliberately curtailing renewable energy use – at record-setting rates – just because utilities aren’t yet set up to take in all the solar energy available early in the day, store it, and provide it later when demand is higher. Distributed customer-sited energy storage can solve this “duck curve” problem, instead of excessively restricting who can install energy storage, and letting red tape block resiliency projects.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that rejects free, clean energy from existing wind and solar installations in order to protect antiquated power lines and infrastructure that have set 2,000 wildfires over four years, killing dozens of people with billions in economic losses, that rely on polluting fossil fuels and generators.

Clean energy has been one of the U.S. economy’s fastest-growing sectors, growing 10.4% since 2015 to 3.4 million jobs at the end of 2019, with California far in the lead. Analysts predict that the renewable energy and storage industries  will accelerate  economic recovery  because it is now less expensive and much quicker to develop than restarting oil, shale and coal production facilities shut down during the pandemic due to low demand and oil price wars.

With menacing blackouts, wildfires, and the economy stumbling amid the pandemic, the timing could not be more urgent

More than 600,000 clean energy workers have lost their jobs in this country, including 78,000 in California alone, according to an analysis by E2m, ACORE, E4TheFuture and BW Research. If action isn’t taken, that analysis estimates 850,000 jobs will have been lost by the end of July.

study published in May by Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Oxford University cited findings that renewables create 7.5 jobs for every $1 million invested, while fossil fuels create just 2.65 jobs. And renewables jobs will generate more jobs because they’re in a growing sector; fossil fuels jobs will be short-lived because, as the data shows, they’re in a dying sector.

It’s long been said that every crisis offers opportunity

The combined crises of Covid-19, recession, climate change and intensifying wildfires give us a rare opportunity to focus our combined political willpower to bring greater energy safety and security to Californians, modernize our dangerously vulnerable energy system, and build an innovative economy that can bring us a better future.

We call on our elected officials to represent the interests of the residents of CA and join with us in achieving a more equitable, safe and prosperous future for California, and to take steps now to achieve it.