Climate justice activists point out that that the most vulnerable among us will bear the brunt of the impacts of extreme heat, as well as other disasters and instability that climate change is already causing. Electricity, however, is a lifeline, especially during disruptive events. This is why ensuring that the most vulnerable can continue to access it when they need it most is a key part of the strategy for the adaptation to climate change.
Who Are the Most Vulnerable?
The climate crisis is also reminding us that vulnerability is contextual. With increasing average temperatures and extreme weather-related events from hurricanes in Louisiana, flooding in Germany and China, to fires in California and Turkey, we see that every region is facing its own challenges. No matter the physical cause, however, there is an incremental risk of weather disaster related mortality for those that have underlying health conditions, as well as the elderly and very young. This adds to existing health disparities that are already disproportionately impacting communities of lower socioeconomic status and in countries like the United States, communities of color.
Simultaneously, energy insecurity follows similar sociological patterns, including those referenced above, meaning that those who will be most in need of additional energy for cooling are also more likely to be unable to absorb increased costs of environmental controls. Even if the costs of energy remain static per unit of energy, more energy will be needed, increasing overall costs in their wallet share and further diminishing energy security for those in need.
Why Does This Matter?
These challenges are occurring at a time when the grid is an integral part of discussions around climate mitigation and adaptation. Governments of every level are committing unprecedented levels of investment to build the grid of the future. Such a grid can enable tremendous benefits such as: economic activity; mitigation of the effects of climate change with clean generation; improvement of physical health; regional resiliency; and even equity if planning is done holistically.
If societal issues are ignored, we could see these inequalities widen further. Failing to leverage the grid for clean technologies like electric transportation could lead to poorer air quality, which could lead to long-term health implications, increasing health costs and vulnerability to extreme temperatures for those already struggling. Greater energy insecurity also feeds a cycle of foreclosures, lower property values, neighborhood divestment, and increasing social vulnerability.
Technology can be a solution, but only of it is equally accessible. As we look at adoption of beneficial electrification and renewable energy technologies, we see too often that those who can benefit most from these solutions cannot afford them.
But if we consider issues of equity, we can achieve technical solutions in a way that maximizes their social impact. There are notable efforts to correct this. Programs that are expanding their reach through community-based partnership are broadening the impacts of energy security programs that are at the forefront of trying to break cycles of marginalization. In Detroit, DTE’s effort to expanded engagement with community organizations along with utilizing census data helped their weatherization assistance programs reach nearly six times as many low-income households. In California, SCE has implemented incentives like rebate programs for electric vehicles, which are better targeted to the EV adoption barriers for underserved communities. As a sector, we need transformational programs to build on these programs and shift the paradigm from a status quo of widening inequality, to reducing inequalities by prioritizing investments where they can produce the most value for all and we have a long way to go.
What is Needed?
To systemically address climate vulnerability and energy insecurity in the electric industry, the complexity of the factors involved requires coordinated planning across the energy value chain. We need better quantifiable metrics for valuing the cascading vulnerability and resilience across communities that results from our investments. In many recent events, infrastructure didn’t fail as much as planning did for a more holistic response, considering low probability events that is our new normal.
New technologies like distributed energy resources are creating options for grid investments that can serve critical infrastructure in the event of a more widespread outages. But our definitions of “critical” should be ground-truthed with lived experiences. Access to new technologies need incentives that are well thought out analytically to remove barriers to underserved communities, as well as a broader look at who current incentive structures serve and who is left out. Analytical frameworks are needed to recognize value the grid as well as the true value distributed energy resources provide to the grid and design compensations that benefit all equitably.
While there are many exciting advances in distributed energy resources, the backbone is a critical component of the equation. Modernizing foundational infrastructure is essential for greater resiliency in the face of more extreme weather events and integrating variations in load is a prerequisite for many new technologies we have today, as well as those that will emerge in the coming years.
There are myriad factors that impact climate vulnerability and energy insecurity. The electric industry is not solely responsible for all these challenges but can influence development toward a more just resilience in the face of climate change. By developing climate and resilience plans, integrating measures of equity into those plans, and more accurately valuing investments analytically based on the cascading costs and benefits to communities, we can ensure that the technological advances translate into societal advances and that all communities are able to enjoy the benefits of the grid of the future. As an industry, we can show the value of the investments we make by deploying them to maximize the benefits felt by all of the communities we serve.
Shay Bahramirad is vice president of Climate and Resilience at Quanta Technology. She is an Adjunct Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology and
IEEE PES Vice President of New Initiative and Outreach.