The destructive storms of the recent past are hard to forget:
- 2005: Katrina.
- 2012: Sandy.
- 2017: Harvey, Irma and Maria.
- 2022: Fiona, Ian, Nicole — and maybe more to come.
The hurricanes are here – and sadly, more are on the way. From New York to Texas to Florida to Puerto Rico, more than 60 million Americans live in places susceptible to these strengthening storms.
Last week, Hurricane Nicole hit Florida with gusts of 75 mph knocking out power to more than 300,000 homes. This is the fourth hurricane to hit the United States this November. When people turn on their televisions, they see images of floods, storm damage and unprepared leaders.
Here’s what the world doesn’t often see: Americans’ lives are at risk – not just from the storm’s initial impacts, but from an outdated approach to the response that focuses on generators providing the electricity they need. so much need.
Just last month, President Biden had a generator as the backdrop to his post-Fiona press conference. Meanwhile, days before in North Carolina, after Hurricane Ian, a man died of carbon monoxide poisoning after his generator malfunctioned indoors. And in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Fiona, there were two more fatalities involving generators: one from carbon monoxide poisoning and the other from a fire that started while refueling a generator. . These are just a few examples of why, for hurricane-affected regions, diesel (or fuel-powered) generators, while common, can be a harmful temporary energy solution. As regions rebuild after the recent hurricane season, federal, state, and local leaders should invest in solar and renewable energy storage systems—a superior health, financial, and sustainable solution. resilience. Here are three reasons:
1. Renewables are much safer
Generators produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, an invisible and odorless deadly gas. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, approximately 85 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators.
The solar-plus-storage microgrids that operated during these recent storms did not cause any fatalities as these systems do not create air pollution or combustion hazards.
2. Renewable microgrids are a financial gain
Generators aren’t cheap: A 100-kilowatt model, like the one featured at Biden’s press conference, can power a small commercial building like a drug store or local supermarket but costs between $30,000 and $80,000. And home-sized generators can easily cost thousands of dollars.
Most of the time, this important investment sits idle and yields nothing. In the event of a storm, fuel is expensive. After Hurricane Fiona, a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico with guests that included first responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross had to pay $12,000 for fuel for their 1 megawatt (10 times larger than the one at the Biden press conference) generator for every five days of use.
In contrast, solar-plus-storage microgrids provide customers with upfront electricity bill savings, and the Energy Information Administration recently reported that solar generation costs less than natural gas.
3. Solar Plus Storage Systems Require Much Less Maintenance
Surprisingly, the San Juan hotel’s operations manager, who paid over $12,000 in fuel after Fiona was not upset about the high diesel price, but was rather grateful to have it delivered.
Indeed, after a storm, getting delivered is not easy, as fuel suppliers are overwhelmed by demand. Access to fuel may also be more difficult.
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the port of San Juan closed, preventing the delivery of fuel to the island – and locally – storm debris or landslides can render roads impassable, making it impossible to diesel supply for generators.
Generators also require frequent maintenance. The generator at this San Juan hotel had to be temporarily shut down for necessary maintenance just ten days after Fiona. Most solar storage systems, however, require much less maintenance. They continue to operate during and after storms, keeping lights on, phones charged, food fresh and powering vital operations like fire dispatch. After Ian, Florida, only 0.3% of the 15 million solar panels in Florida Power and Light’s system were damaged.
It’s time for federal and state leaders to understand that good policies on paper are not enough – we need strategies that get results. Federal agencies must reduce the number of diesel generators purchased with federal funds and instead provide safe, renewable solutions – before disasters strike. These agencies need to change their often hands-off approach of placing the blame on local and state applicants and be more proactive.
From Florida to Puerto Rico, it is usually wealthy members of the community who have access to solar power and storage. During the recovery from the storm, federal agencies must ensure they implement the Biden administration’s Justice40 goal “that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved and overloaded with pollution.
Equity must be at the forefront. Otherwise, we could spend new money to reinforce existing inequalities: neighborhoods with more resources will be lit, while those with fewer will be in the dark.
Michael Liebman is an RMI manager who focuses on using blended finance to deploy large-scale solar and storage microgrids in low- and middle-income communities. RMI.org, founded as the Rocky Mountain Institute, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advisory organization working on energy transition.
Elizabeth Arnold is currently a consultant in policy and implementation of energy programs. Previously, she worked at the US Department of Energy on energy harvesting and resilience in Puerto Rico.
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