Using solar power to build a more resilient grid

A report recently released by the Abell Foundation highlights an emerging consensus that solar power can play an invaluable role in low income neighborhoods by providing grid resiliency in extreme weather.  It also explores how solar power can create jobs and lower monthly electricity bills. The latter will increase in Baltimore in coming years — especially with the imposition of a controversial “infrastructure surcharge” that will charge ratepayers for services not yet received.

The report was written in response to a July 2013 heat wave which put massive strain on the electricity distribution grid and resulted in the death of 12 people in Maryland.  Defining the promotion of “stronger and more resilient communities as the core of community development,” it makes the following critical points:

  • Increasing solar (PV) distributed energy generation provides an economic case for the fixed, long-term price advantage of solar over fossil fuel-based generation with its volatile fuel prices.
  • Extreme weather events and resulting power outages deprive a community of electricity that powers essential infrastructure and economic activity.  Key to addressing these outages is the deployment of “off-grid, on-site” solar systems equipped with battery storage.
  • The current power distribution system places the low income, the elderly, and the disabled at the greatest risk during grid disruptions such as those caused by extreme weather events.
  • New technologies such as solar power with battery storage, combined with new financing tools, can provide communities and their critical infrastructure with reliable power during electricity disruptions.

The report also highlights groups across the country which are employing solar power as a tool for job creation, electricity savings, and building more resilient communities. One example is the California-based non-profit GRID Alternatives, the state program manager for the California Single-Family Affordable Housing Program (SASH). The program allows homeowners making less than 50% of local median income to receive a solar PV system free of charge and trains residents to secure jobs in the solar installation industry. Meanwhile, in Colorado, with support from the Denver Community Development Corporation, the Northeast Denver Housing Center installed solar systems on 30 housing units in 12 buildings while providing job training to neighborhood residents.

Essential to both of these projects is a financing option known as a “power purchase agreement,” in which a third party owns and installs a solar system on a customer’s home while guaranteeing a price that will remain below the customer’s utility rate. This guarantee is made possible by “net-metering,” which allows consumers to offset their monthly electricity bill with their on-site solar electricity production, and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), which are purchased by utilities in states which have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards, such as Maryland.

Another model which expands the benefits of solar power is known as “community solar.” Community solar allow renters, apartment tenants, and people with shady roofs to buy into in an off-site solar facility which they can use to offset their monthly bill through “virtual net-metering,” wherein the meter used to calculate the energy produced is not located at the subscribers residence but rather at the energy producing facility. Community solar legislation was adopted in Washington, D.C. and Colorado in 2013, among other locations nationwide.  A bill to make this approach possible in Maryland was narrowly defeated in committee in the MD legislature.

The report makes the following recommendations for Baltimore City and Maryland policymakers and leaders:

  • Support deployment of solar systems with energy storage capacity at critical facilities that provide services to low-income communities.
  • Ensure that workforce development funds and job training programs are integrated with public funding of solar projects in low-income communities.
  • Support bulk purchasing programs which allow a large pool of consumers to install solar power systems at a reduced rate.
  • Enact state legislation that advances distributed solar generation benefiting Baltimore’s low-income communities, to include passage of community solar legislation at the state level.
  • Explore the city’s responsibility to provide greater power resiliency to ensure that vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled are able to access emergency services during severe weather events.

Are you interested in learning more about how solar power could benefit your community?  Click here to visit the Community Power Network’s website and learn more information about low-income solar project models or here for additional information on solar models that are currently in action in MD and related policy issues.