Hurricanes mean power outages. Resilience hubs can help.

Satellite imagery shows Hurricane Isabel in 2003

Hurricane Isabel was one of Virginia’s worst natural disasters–and it was only a category 2 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina. Photo credit NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.

With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.

I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.

For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)

Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.

After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.

The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.

And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.

The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.

Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.

A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.

The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.

The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.

But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.

Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.

Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.

More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”

The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.

That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the communities where it is most needed. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 24, 2020.

Want more solar in Virginia? Here’s how to get it.

A Solar Foundation analysis showed Virginia could create 50,000 new jobs by committing to build enough solar to meet 10% of energy demand. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

If there is an energy issue that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it is support for solar energy. It’s homegrown and clean, it provides local jobs, it lowers our carbon footprint, and it brings important national security and emergency preparedness benefits. Dominion Energy Virginia even says it’s now the cheapest option for new electric generation.

Yet currently Virginia lags far behind Maryland and North Carolina in total solar capacity installed, as well as in solar jobs and the percentage of electricity provided by solar. And at the rate we’re going, we won’t catch up. Dominion’s current Integrated Resource Plan calls for it to build just 240 megawatts (MW) per year for its ratepayers. How can we come from behind and score big?

First, our leaders have to set a serious goal. Virginia could create more than 50,000 new jobs by building enough solar to meet just 10 percent of our electricity demand by 2023. That requires a total of 15,000 MW of solar. Legislators should declare 15,000 MW of solar in the public interest, including solar from distributed resources like rooftop solar.

The General Assembly should consider a utility mandate as well. Our weak, voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) will never be met with wind and solar, and making it mandatory wouldn’t change that. (To understand why, read section 4 of my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy, here.) Getting solar into the RPS would require 1) making it mandatory; 2) increasing the targets to meaningful levels (including removing the nuclear loophole); 3) including mandatory minimums for solar and wind so they don’t have to compete with cheap renewable energy certificates (RECs) from out-of-state hydroelectric dams; and 4) providing a way for utilities to count the output of customer-owned solar facilities in the total, possibly through a REC purchase program to be set up by the State Corporation Commission.

The other way to frame a utility mandate would be to ignore the RPS and just require each utility to build (or buy the output of) its share of 15,000 MW of solar. Allowing utilities to count privately-owned, customer-sited solar towards the total would make it easier to achieve, and give utilities a reason to embrace customer investments in solar.

Second, the General Assembly has to remove existing barriers to distributed solar. Customers have shown an eagerness to invest private dollars in solar; the government and utilities should get out of the way. That means tackling several existing barriers:

  • Standby charges on residential solar facilities between 10 and 20 kilowatts (kW) should be removed. Larger home systems are growing in popularity to enable charging electric vehicles with solar. That’s a good thing, not something to be punished with a tax.
  • The 1% cap on the amount of electricity that can be supplied by net-metered systems should be repealed.
  • Currently customers cannot install a facility that is larger than needed to serve their previous year’s demand; the limitation should be removed or raised to 125% of demand to accommodate businesses with expansion plans and homeowners who plan to buy electric vehicles.
  • Customers should be allowed to band together to own and operate solar arrays in their communities to meet their electricity requirements. This kind of true community solar (as distinguished from the utility-controlled programs enabled in legislation last year) gives individuals and businesses a way to invest in solar even if they don’t have sunny roofs, and to achieve economies of scale. If community solar is too radical a concept for some (it certainly provokes utility opposition), a more limited approach would allow condominiums to install a solar facility to serve members.
  • Local governments should be allowed to use what is known as municipal net metering, in which the output of a solar array on government property such as a closed landfill could serve nearby government buildings.
  • Third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) offer a no-money-down approach to solar and have tax advantages that are especially valuable for universities, schools, local governments and non-profits. But while provisions of the Virginia Code clearly contemplate customers using PPAs, Virginia utilities perversely maintain they aren’t legal except under tightly-limited “pilot programs” hammered out in legislation enacted in recent years. The limitations are holding back private investment in solar; the General Assembly should pass legislation expressly legalizing solar third-party PPAs for all customers.

Third, the Commonwealth should provide money to help local governments install solar on municipal facilities. Installing solar on government buildings, schools, libraries and recreation centers lowers energy costs for local government and saves money for taxpayers while creating jobs for local workers and putting dollars into the local economy. That makes it a great investment for the state, while from the taxpayer’s standpoint, it’s a wash.

If the state needs to prioritize among eager localities, I recommend starting with the Coalfields region. The General Assembly rightly discontinued its handouts to coal companies in that region, which were costing taxpayers more than $20 million annually. Investing that kind of money into solar would help both the cash-strapped county governments in the area and develop solar as a clean industry to replace lost coal jobs.

Coupled with the ability to use third-party PPA financing, a state grant of, say, 30% of the cost of a solar facility (either immediately or paid out over several years) would drive significant new investment in solar.

Fourth, a tax credit for renewable energy property would drive installations statewide. One reason North Carolina got the jump on Virginia in solar was it had a robust tax credit (as well as a solar carve-out to its RPS). One bill has already been introduced for Virginia’s 2018 General Assembly session offering a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, including solar, up to $15,000. (The bill is HB 54.)

Fifth, Virginia should enable microgrids. Unlike some other East Coast states, we’ve been lucky with recent hurricanes. The unlucky states have learned a terrible lesson about the vulnerability of the grid. They are now promoting microgrids as one way to keep the lights on for critical facilities and emergency shelters when the larger grid goes down. A microgrid combines energy sources and battery storage to enable certain buildings to “island” themselves and keep the power on. Solar is a valuable component of a microgrid because it doesn’t rely on fuel supplies that can be lost or suffer interruptions.

The General Assembly should authorize a pilot program for utilities, local governments and the private sector to collaborate on building solar microgrids with on-site batteries as a way to enhance community preparedness, provide power to buildings like schools that also serve as emergency shelters, and provide grid services to the utilities.

One way or another, solar energy is going to play an increasingly large role in our energy future. The technology is ready and the economics are right. The only question is whether Virginia leaders are ready to make the most of it in the coming year.

If the power grid goes down, blame the war on solar

More, please. Photo credit Christoffer Reimer/Wikimedia

More, please.
Photo credit Christoffer Reimer/Wikimedia

A large number of electric utilities across the country are famously engaged in a war against customer-owned solar. Using policy barriers, “standby” charges and other tactics, utilities from Arizona to Virginia are doing everything possible to short-circuit a revolution that threatens their control of the electric sector. It won’t work. Trying to keep electric generation out of the hands of the rabble is a stop-gap solution, doomed to fail within a few years when battery storage allows customers with solar arrays (or wind turbines) to defect en masse.

But utilities won’t be the only ones hurt in the process. Stifling distributed generation and forcing grid defection is the worst possible outcome for the economy, the climate, and the security of the electric grid. The more utilities succeed, the more everyone loses.

With all its problems—and they are growing—the modern electric grid remains an efficient way of delivering competitively-priced power to American homes and businesses. Utilities, generators, and grid operators engage in a complicated dance that delivers power economically where it is needed, when it is needed, with no shortfalls and nothing left over, better than 99.9% of the time. If one generating plant suddenly breaks down, others are swiftly brought online. When demand for electricity peaks, grid operators call up “peaker” plants or pay some customers to curtail use. The balance is maintained.

But the sheer size and interdependence of the grid, and its reliance on large, centralized generating plants, makes it vulnerable to massive power disruptions resulting from weather events, electromagnetic pulses, solar storms or physical attack. Aging infrastructure, climate change-driven mega-storms, more intense heatwaves, drought, and potential cyberattacks are growing threats to the reliability of our power supply.

Distributed generation using renewable energy offers the simplest and most efficient way to reduce many of these threats. A power grid that includes thousands of solar and wind installations scattered across a service territory is inherently more secure than one reliant on a handful of huge generating plants and transformer stations. And when the fuel is wind or solar, supply lines can’t be disrupted.

Distributed solar is especially useful when the grid is under stress. Researchers found that just 500 megawatts of widely dispersed solar energy could have prevented the massive blackout of the Northeast in August of 2003.

Add in battery storage, and some small systems can be combined to form microgrids. Microgrids can be “islanded” when the larger grid fails, producing power continuously to ensure that critical needs are met—and decreasing the incentive for hackers and terrorists to target the grid in the first place.

The businesses and residents who are installing solar arrays today aren’t just saving money on energy bills and reducing their carbon footprint. They are buying the building blocks of a more resilient power grid that will serve all of us in the future. Some utilities like NRG and Vermont’s Green Mountain Power recognize the value of distributed solar to the grid and work to encourage customers to stay connected. Others, like Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power in Virginia, NV Energy in Nevada, and the Arizona Public Service Company, are energetically working to impose barriers and punish solar owners with higher costs. If they succeed, the result will be less distributed generation and greater grid vulnerability.

Worse, customers who face these utility barriers and cost penalties will have an incentive to cut themselves off from the grid. Affordable battery storage is beginning to make that an option. Within a few years, disaffected customers could be leaving in droves. Rather than pay a punitive “fair share” of the wires that cross their property, they could opt to pay no share at all.

Then, instead of a stronger grid, we’d have a weaker one. Instead of increasing the security of our power supply, we would increase our vulnerability to attack. In place of a highly efficient, low-cost, interconnected grid, we’d move towards an inefficient, high-cost, Balkanized grid.

This is the worst possible direction for our grid—and it’s the logical conclusion to the war on solar that utilities are waging today. That makes it critical that regulators, customers and state legislatures push back hard in support of customer-owned solar. Protecting the grid is too important to let utilities win this war.