Using Energy Storage to Improve Public Health in Disadvantaged Communities

Here’s another twist on why energy storage is a good thing. It can help clean the air and improve public health. Seth Mullendore of Clean Energy Group explains.

energy storageEnergy storage deployment has been ramping up at a rapid pace across the country, mainly because it can reduce electric bills and cut utility expenses. It is now time to consider another key benefit of storage—public health, especially the power of energy storage to reduce pollution in marginalized communities.

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley and PSE Health Energy, an energy research and policy institute, recently published an interesting article in the journal Energy Policy on the role of clean energy technologies and public health. It describes a new approach to the siting and dispatch of emerging clean energy resources, specifically energy storage and demand response. The authors argue that policy-driven clean energy deployment strategies should be locationally optimized—policymakers should think more about where these resources should go—based on impacts to air pollution, human health, and environmental justice.

The reason for this is that the adverse effects of air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, which can raise ozone levels, and other fine particulates are highly localized. This makes them different from greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, whose effects are widely dispersed. The broad clean energy policies currently in place often only target GHGs, ignoring the hazardous pollutants affecting many communities.

These local pollutants can lead to respiratory conditions like asthma and lung disease as well as increased rates of heart disease and pre-term births. The American Thoracic Society reported earlier this year that even a moderate reduction in exposure to these pollutants could save thousands of lives per year in the U.S.

The real local culprits are high-emitting, fossil-fuel power plants, commonly referred to as “peaker plants.” Peakers can run on coal, oil, or natural gas and are typically less efficient and more expensive to run than their baseload counterparts, which operate during normal periods of electricity demand. Apart from being more expensive and less efficient, these peakers tend to emit hazardous pollutants at a higher rate than other conventional power plants. Worse, they are often called upon to run on days already experiencing poor air quality conditions.

This is doubly important when considering the impacts on low-income communities. Studies have repeatedly found that power plants are disproportionately located near low-income communities and communities of color. In fact, the Berkeley study found that more than 80 percent of the peaker plants the researchers identified and mapped in California were located in more disadvantaged communities. Due to the localized effects of air pollutants, there is a direct correlation between living near power plants and adverse health effects, with the heaviest health burdens falling on these disadvantaged communities.

The Berkeley publication calls for policy to consider how to deploy new clean energy technologies like energy storage to alleviate these localized emissions problems. To get the highest environmental health return, it argues that policy makers need to prioritize the reduction of air pollutants near densely populated and disadvantaged communities.

For years, environmental policy has been devoted to increasing the deployment of renewable energy resources like wind and solar to offset fossil-fuel power plant emissions. But the argument has always had a missing link. Only when these intermittent renewables are combined with the control provided by dispatchable technologies like energy storage can they truly target and displace the highest emitting electricity resources. Without storage, emission-free wind and solar energy may not be available during the times of high electricity demand when peakers are called upon.

The Berkeley study suggests that policies aimed at installing and operating energy storage resources to displace these inefficient peaker plants would maximize the potential for societal benefits—especially improving public health in disadvantaged communities. Not only could intelligent siting and dispatch of energy storage technologies reduce total emissions, it could reduce them in a way that benefits those communities most in need.

Replacing peaker plants with energy storage technologies isn’t some novel, futuristic idea. It’s happening right now.

The utility Southern California Edison (SCE) is already turning to energy storage as a cost-effective alternative to natural gas-fired peaker plants. In a recent interview, SCE’s vice president of energy procurement and management stated that batteries can “meet peak demands with lower emissions than natural gas-fired peakers by charging during low-demand periods when excess wind and solar energy is being generated, and discharging during peak demand periods, which displaces the need to burn incremental natural gas in a peaker.”

SCE has contracts in place for nearly 300 megawatts of storage, including a 100 megawatt battery project that will replace a natural gas peaker in Long Beach. The California Public Utility Commission has also authorized utilities in southern California to fast-track energy storage projects aimed at avoiding blackouts during peak demand periods in the wake of gas shortages due to a massive gas leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility.

This isn’t just happening in California. New York utility Con Edison announced a project that will install solar panels and batteries in hundreds of homes in Brooklyn and Queens. The batteries will collectively act as a “clean virtual power plant” with the ability to offset peak demand. Kentucky utility Glasgow Electric has its own plans for a virtual power plant with residential storage devices in 165 homes, as does Arizona’s largest electric utility, APS. A municipal utility in Connecticut just completed the largest solar+storage system in the state, designed to shift solar energy to periods of high demand. Projects like these are being explored as a viable alternative to peaker plants across the nation.

In places where the economics of storage don’t yet make sense or utilities are resistant to deploying emerging technology solutions, the public health case may not be enough of an incentive to displace the operation of high-emitting peaker plants. This is where policy will be necessary to prioritize societal benefits.

This type of clean energy policy consideration is beginning to be implemented. The EPA has prioritized clean energy investments in low-income communities as part of the Clean Power Plan’s Clean Energy Incentive Program. California will also incentivize solar energy systems to benefit low-income residents in its new Multifamily Affordable Housing Solar Roofs Program. But more needs to be done to guide intelligent deployment of energy storage resources.

Energy storage has the potential to deliver significant environmental health benefits. To ensure these benefits are fully realized, clean energy policy must be implemented to encourage energy storage deployment aimed at reducing the environmental pollution burdens of those disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by peaker plant emissions and most in need of relief.

This needs to be done now, during the initial stages of energy storage technology adoption, before incentives are largely exhausted and communities in need are again left as an afterthought in the clean energy revolution.

Seth Mullendore is a project director for Clean Energy Group. This blog originated on the Clean Energy Group’s blog.

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