For electric power, this century has been a saga of innovation. Today, utility companies like Con Edison are equipping buildings with smart electricity meters. Tech companies are redesigning homes around solar panels, batteries, and smart devices. Utility regulators are experimenting with new electric delivery rates and rebate programs. And grid operators are bringing them all together.
Connecticut’s neighbors—New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—have even allowed their municipalities to procure electricity from alternative energy suppliers, a move known as Community Choice Aggregation. These actions are rethinking how we supply, deliver, and use electricity. They are fueling —and monetizing— drops in emissions while improving the quality of life in disenfranchised communities, blending gigawatts of renewables into the supply mix, increasing the purchasing power of green energy consumers, fortifying the electrical grid, and making the industry’s natural monopolies less vertically integrated. This is the epitome of energy independence. We arguably went to war over it. And with Gov. Ned Lamont’s push for 100% sustainable electricity by 2040, the political will isn’t likely to disappear.
Clean, distributed electricity may be an antidote to climate change —but that’s a tough sell. Pew Research recently found that a majority of American adults are unfazed by the crisis. Their reaction suggests that emissions reduction seems like an expensive inconvenience. Perhaps this is because the goal —slowing the pace of global warming— has been prefaced as time-dependent. An effort that requires large-scale, immediate participation to turn things around. This messaging is problematic. If clean energy proponents want to widen their base, they must put other reasons than climate change at center stage.
Power outages should take the spotlight.
First, ask yourself: Do you enjoy power outages? It’s an annual tradition in Connecticut. In fact, as August rolls by, I’m scouting out the wayward tree who’s a storm away from falling. Poor —but often impractical— vegetation management takes the blame here. Last year’s Tropical Storm Isaias, whose vast path downed thousands of trees, left millions in the state without power. In Eversource territory, some ratepayers were in the dark for nine days. Connecticut’s utilities regulator, PURA, scolded Eversource and United Illuminating over that and more.
Yet burying the lines, the easy answer, would be a herculean effort. Extraordinary power disruptions like the blackout of 2003 —caused by a cascade of technical and human errors— also prove that fallen trees aren’t our only foe. Imagine if a ransomware attack like the one waged against the Colonial Pipeline earlier this year was fired at the grid? Since many suburban residences here rely on electric stoves and private wells and septic systems —which are not mutually exclusive— extensive power outages of any cause leave homes a wooden shell. Productivity plummets, comfort frays, and food goes to waste because of fragile electrical infrastructure.
The classic fix? Haul out that loud, gas-guzzling generator that may or may not kill you if one happens to butt-dial the garage door opener. You could also invest thousands in a standby generator. Still, neither option can supply a normal electrical load for a protracted amount of time.
There’s a better solution —meet solar-plus-storage. That is, a roof-mounted solar photovoltaic system with an integrated home battery. These energy systems utilize solar net metering, demand response, state regulations, and the local electrical infrastructure in intelligent ways. In aggregation, they can be programmed into a virtual power plant that automates each battery’s charge and —at least— keeps the lights on during extreme weather events.
Their incentive structures carry the potential for homeowners to reduce their electrical bills during costly periods of peak demand. Plus, the upfront investment is often priced into the anticipated energy savings. And they’re growing popular in states prone to blackouts. Last month, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a U.S. Department of Energy affiliate, said that California represents the majority of solar-plus-storage installs nationwide as their wildfires grow more frequent and intense.
None of this means discounting the climate change narrative. It means framing the climate benefits of clean energy as they truly are, a positive externality, and making health and financial benefits the main selling point. By carrot and stick, we can pull climate change skeptics into the solution. Use the common fear of power outages to improve lives and decentralize our grid assets.
Liam J. Enea is a 19-year-old University of Connecticut student and founder of the municipal Brookfield Youth Commission. He works in renewable energy.