Steering Economic Stimulus Toward Sustainability: A Case for Distributed Generation

As lawmakers debate stimulus programs to bolster an economy that has sunk in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there are calls for incentives and grants for renewable energy companies.  What can we learn from the last major renewable energy stimulus, and how can we pursue a bold and progressive program that supports people more than corporations, and protects wildlands more than rich investors?

As the Los Angeles Times points out, the last major stimulus aimed at the renewable energy industry occurred under the Obama administration.   Investors and corporations benefited the most from this approach. Some of those grants and incentives spurred research and development, and others supported "steel in the ground," such as large-scale solar projects on public lands in the desert.  Those large projects created mostly temporary jobs, and often resulted in unnecessary destruction of key wildlands.  For example, the natural gas-burning Ivanpah Solar project in California received a $539 million grant so they could bulldoze prime desert tortoise habitat and install solar power towers that kill birds and insects.  And as for jobs, it was built over an hour drive away from the nearest city.  Not quite the ideal community investment.

We can choose a different path, now.  Technology available today can enable a much more sustainable program that can benefit our climate and our communities, while sparing our wildlands.

Investing in Distributed Generation and Storage = Investing in Communities

Any new stimulus aimed at boosting renewable energy should focus on distributed generation and storage in low-income communities.  As the economy lags, it will be low-income communities that struggle the most not the CEOs of renewable energy companies.  Programs are already in place in the US and other countries that serve as a model for how we can focus on bringing these technologies to low-income communities, resulting in reduced energy bills for those that need the relief, and new jobs in our neighborhoods.

In California, the Disadvantaged Communities – Single-family Solar Homes (DAC-SASH) program supports the installation of rooftop solar  where the financial relief of lower utility bills can help the most.  This benefit - reduced electricity bills - is enduring.  So the investment in clean energy provides long-term aid to families in need.   It also provides job training right in the communities most affected by economic downturn.  Programs like these should be implemented and expanded across the country.  Studies have shown that the US has the potential to meet a significant portion of our electricity demand through rooftop solar.

If you do not own the home that you live in, this can usually constrain whether or not you can install solar panels.  But incentives could be extended to that allow renters to subscribe to community solar programs.  An ideal community solar installation is a small or mid-size project in a city or on already-disturbed lands.  Local community members subscribe to a "share" in the project and receive an offset in their utility bill.  In the District of Columbia, a community solar project developer has found a way to ensure access for disadvantaged communities to these clean energy sources. Federal stimulus could steer grants and incentives to projects such as these, ensuring local development and local benefits.

Let's replace old, inefficient water heaters with smart systems.
In Hawaii, a US company will install thousands of "grid-interactive water heaters," including across low-income communities, to provide the utility with a demand response mechanism and thermal energy storage solution.  Imagine a large-scale Federal stimulus program to replace aging and inefficient, gas-powered water heaters in low-income communities, and providing more efficient systems that can enable our grid's transition to 100% renewable energy.

In Australia, another US-based company has piloted a "virtual power plant" that networks over 1,000 rooftop solar installations across low-income households.  The low-income families have seen up to 20% reductions in electricity bills, while the we all benefit from clean energy.  Because these systems are networked, they also bring more resilience and stability to the grid.  And as for sustainability, virtual power plants can save real wildlands.  No bulldozers scraping the desert, and no emissions fouling our atmosphere.

There is another reason distributed generation and virtual power plants should be a primary focus of our economic stimulus.  US companies lead the world in developing these technologies.  Encouraging and leading this paradigm shift can bring economic promise and global sustainability.  There is a vast network of US-based technology firms, manufacturers and installers that can benefit from a ground-up policy approach that starts in our low-income communities.   Virtual power plant technology is also not simply limited to batteries and solar panels.  It includes a range of other implementations - some are camera-ready and others are more cutting edge.  From the smart water heaters and thermostats, to using electric vehicles as distributed energy storage and dispatch devices. There is potential for economic benefits across a range of sectors.

Mobilize Urban Spaces for Clean Energy

Local municipalities and counties will be struggling as their tax base takes a hit in this economic downturn.  Just as distributed generation can provide an enduring economic benefit to individuals, it can do the same for local governments and civic organizations.  Reducing utility bills for our schools, churches, fire and police departments would be a benefit for local ledgers and for the climate.  Every school parking lot, civic center rooftop, and bus depot should be a new solar host.

Federal stimulus could boost this sustainable "sweet spot" in solar energy deployment by providing energy grants to municipalities. This would ensure that we continue to rapidly deploy clean energy in spaces that do not involve the sacrifice of wildlands.  A parking lot not covered by a solar canopy should be as problematic as not washing hands or wearing a face mask during a pandemic.  We face a climate and extinction crisis, and the simplest and wisest response is to rapidly deploy clean energy and energy efficiency solutions in our cities.

As we continue to battle the immediate threat of the coronavirus pandemic and seek ways to support communities in need, we should look at renewable energy stimulus as not just another corporate bailout, but an opportunity to shift the paradigm.  Distributed generation technologies provide us with an opportunity to do so in a way that empowers disadvantaged communities, reduces harmful emissions, and saves desert wildlands.


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