By Christopher Johnson, CEO of Blue Planet Energy
Hurricanes are notorious for disastrous aftermaths. While extreme wind- and water-damaged properties are the images most portrayed, damage to infrastructure resources like electricity and clean water are perhaps the more deadly result of hurricanes because of their rippling effects within communities.
Post-hurricane power outages are highly common and tend to be more severe than any other incident-related outage, because post-storm outages can affect those well outside the storm’s direct path. In places with weakened electric grids, like Puerto Rico, even minor storms can lead to outages while larger storms will almost always result in prolonged power cutoffs. Without power, the electricity needed for water and sewage treatments is cut off, as are the critical telecommunication lines needed to keep communities safe and sheltered after a disaster. More seriously, health conditions become exacerbated by disruptions to medical services at hospitals, like dialysis machines and refrigerated medicines, that ultimately lead to loss of life.
In 2012, more than 8 million people across 21 U.S. states went without power for weeks after Superstorm Sandy. Five years later, Hurricane Maria created one of the longest outages in history, lasting over 11 months, and resulted in nearly 3,000 fatalities in Puerto Rico. In the case of Hurricane Laura in 2020, more deaths were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from improper generator use than the storm itself in Louisiana. These are just three of many storms shouldered by the coastal U.S. and Caribbean Islands in the last decade alone, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicting a 65% chance for an above-normal hurricane season for 2021.
While generators have long been a go-to for reviving energy in a power outage, the dangers of improper use coupled with high failure rates for commercial-use reduce the viability of generators as an effective resource. As a result, many homeowners and businesses in hurricane-prone regions are investing in solar + storage systems to more safely generate power in the event their local utility grid goes down. However, these systems can often be out of reach for many residents, either financially or otherwise. How, then, can a need as basic as electricity be delivered to the masses to ensure the continuity of community health and wellbeing?
Energy Equity Through Community Resilience
Recent hurricanes have exposed energy vulnerability and proven to impact disadvantaged communities to a higher degree. A study on Hurricane Maria found that the Puerto Ricans living in low socioeconomic areas experienced a 45% higher risk of death.
Knowing those without access to power are also the most vulnerable, the notion of creating “resilience hubs” is gaining momentum in areas impacted by wildfires, like in the western U.S., and hurricanes, like in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Several community resilience projects have already been carried out with much success.
Hospitals, for example, are being granted financial support to install solar and battery systems that can sustain the hospitals’ high energy demands and their consequential ability to provide uninterrupted medical services. Schools are another hub for community resilience, where organizations like the American Red Cross help implement solar + storage systems. Designated as official emergency shelters, these schools become a place for the community to seek refuge in addition to serving as a mission control center for gathering and dispersing supplies and communicating recovery plans. Rural communities have also benefited from the stability of solar and battery-powered electricity, which now provides clean, running water for entire communities 24/7.
While it may not yet be possible to put a solar + storage system into every home, community resilience projects empower citizens to be more self-reliant on local, renewable resources. These resources help ensure everyone has access to critical services, goods and infrastructure in the wake of a disaster and throughout the year. Energy security created through self-reliant communities, especially when centralized systems are unavailable, in turn creates greater — and much needed — energy equity.
Disaster Preparedness ROI
Waiting to bolster critical infrastructure until after a disaster is a costly mistake, and community leaders at the city, federal, and commercial levels need to plan for and invest in resilience projects well before the next disaster strikes.
According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves society $6. So, while initial investments will always be needed to get projects up and running, the long-term return on investment not only protects communities, it also helps stimulate money back into local economies.
Installing local clean energy throughout our communities is also ultimately cheaper than utility-scale power plants. According to a recent report, small, distributed energy resources close to people provide the resilience utility-scale installations simply cannot. Financing options and growing support from federal leaders now opens access to reliable energy to people across more socioeconomic groups and geographies.
Renewables + Resilience = Clean Energy for All
The United States has more power outages than any other developed country. With the increasing frequency of storms and natural disasters, already aging grid infrastructure becomes even more fragile. As state and federal governments implement new climate change response plans, local renewable energy projects with resilience are the pathway for communities to bounce back from disasters stronger and more quickly. Greater energy inclusivity, achieved directly through these local projects, will also undoubtedly ensure the benefits of reliable electricity are accessible to all people.