It is a constant refrain: Climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense. Every year, we are seeing increasing numbers of 100-year storms and 500-year floods. While parts of our country burn with wildfire, typically cool regions scorch in record heat waves, and warm weather areas experience weeks of freezing temperatures.
Burning fossil fuels drives climate change and its resulting impacts, and switching to renewable energy sources is key to mitigating the worst effects. However, some climate damage has already been done, and many weather extremes are here for the foreseeable future. Challenges of reliability impact all parts of the electricity system, from demand to transmission and distribution. We must increase our resiliency in the face of a changing world. But how?
Evidence shows that clean energy technology - particularly distributed renewables and storage - can be a solution in more ways than one by not only directly reducing carbon emissions, but also improving electricity access and reducing potential loss and damages from climate impacts. In rural and underserved areas, which often bear a disproportionate impact from climate disasters, distributed resources can provide relatively low-capital grid access to those who need it the most. Decentralizing energy ensures that these areas are not left behind when it comes to improving access to affordable energy, especially during grid emergencies.
The same also holds true for the larger population as a whole: A diversified grid powered by renewable energy from large utilities, independent power producers, and individually-owned resources builds community resilience. Not only do clean energy technologies provide widespread options for access, but they are the cheapest power option in most of the world, can support heightened demand, and have a track record of sustaining less damage from extreme weather, minimizing blackouts when it matters most.
This month, we take a look at a few examples of how renewable resources can provide reliable energy to communities during natural disasters.
Puerto Rico has historically struggled to maintain its energy grid. Its power sources are dirty and expensive, and its service is unreliable. Currently, the territory's energy system relies on fossil-fueled power plants built over half a century ago, all of which are located along vulnerable coastline. When storms strike, such as the recent Hurricane Fiona, millions of residents lose power - some for weeks or longer. In some cases, the health and safety risks of blackouts trigger more fatalities than those resulting directly from the storm itself.
But rooftop solar and storage projects can change that fate. Renewable power has proven resilient and reliable in the face of extreme weather, even as fossil generation fails and transmission lines go down. A number of nonprofits across Puerto Rico have spent the past couple of decades installing renewable energy systems on homes and businesses. When storms roll through, those with their own clean generation source are able to maintain what may well be life-saving energy. For example, nearly 20 percent of Puerto Rico's fire stations are powered by renewables. In an emergency, their solar roofs and battery storage ensures that first responders can concentrate on the job and not on whether the power will fail.
As in Puerto Rico, solar-powered communities in Florida are also a testament to renewable energy's resilience. Florida is hit by almost twice as many hurricanes as any other U.S. state, so storm readiness is critical for sustaining safe communities. Just a couple of months ago, the state was slammed with Hurricane Ian, one of the largest storms to ever make U.S. landfall.
While more than 2.5 million were without power, one small community kept the energy flowing throughout the storm. The community, Babcock Ranch, is the first fully solar-powered town in the country. Though it suffered from the same 100 mile-per-hour winds as neighboring areas, its 700,000 solar arrays, underground power lines, battery storage system, and other resiliently-designed attributes kept residents safe and connected.
Wildfires in California have grown more severe and frequent as temperatures rise and the state experiences more persistent drought. These disasters have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the electric grid over the past couple of decades. Californians consistently face triple-digit temperatures, severe air pollution, and direct fire threats while relying on an overloaded and vulnerable electricity grid.
In addition to its surplus of solar, battery storage may provide a solution. In 2020, more than one million Californians suffered rolling blackouts as a drought threatened to spark downed transmission lines. The following year saw a nearly ten-fold increase in battery storage, and when similar drought conditions struck in 2021, blackouts were greatly reduced. Despite many disabled transmission systems, grid operators were able to pull from solar and storage systems, as well as standalone batteries to meet energy needs. As battery storage, residential rooftop solar, and other distributed microgrid resources grow more prevalent, clean technologies hold the key to a more resilient future for California.
In early 2021, an unprecedented extreme winter storm left millions in Texas without power in sub-freezing temperatures. Many tried to blame the blackouts on frozen turbines and ineffective solar panels. In actuality, coal and natural gas, which are the primary fuels for Texas energy, lost nearly twice as much power as renewable resources during the storm. The grid suffered the most debilitating losses when natural gas supplies ran short and gas-fired power plant equipment froze.
Earlier this year Texas experienced extreme heat which, due to climate change, hit earlier in the summer than in years past. As people turned on air conditioners to cope with the heat in early June, the state set new records for electricity demand - and yet the power stayed on. The renewables in the energy mix performed extremely well despite the heat, meeting about 40 percent of energy demand.
Renewables for a resilient future
As we tackle climate change, we must ensure a careful balance of mitigation work and resilience initiatives. Luckily, investment in renewable energy can provide both. With new tax credits and other financing mechanisms from sources like the Inflation Reduction Act, it will become increasingly easy to build a stronger and more reliable grid for all. Leyline looks forward to continued investment in projects that are good for our climate, people, and the planet.