Local solar offers the lowest-cost pathway to 100% clean energy


Last month, the World Meteorological Organization announced that we will experience the hottest year ever recorded in the next five years. In the near future, we can expect more extreme summer heat that will, in turn, expose our vulnerability to wildfires, droughts, heat waves, and other natural disasters. Energy consumers across America will, quite literally, pay the price for Mother Nature’s fury as utility costs spike and frequent outages or rolling blackouts become the norm. Just last month, climate scientists warned us about the potential turmoil that blackouts during heatwaves could cause this summer.

Prioritizing the deployment of local solar technologies like rooftop and community solar in conjunction with battery storage unlocks a stronger, more flexible electric grid. It also creates the lowest-cost pathway to a 100% clean energy future. A clean grid with mainstream local solar and storage is $88 billion less expensive and more resilient than the grid of today. The alternative is higher costs for everyone, with some paying the ultimate price.

Research published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology estimates that mass power outages that occur during extreme heat waves can cripple cities and cause a substantial death toll. Experts estimate that 13,000 people could die in Phoenix and even northern cities like Detroit would be unable to prevent several hundred deaths in this scenario. We need electricity and air conditioning during extreme heat to survive, and that means the electric grid needs to be fully prepared to meet our needs.

Over the last several decades we have seen extreme weather events become increasingly common with over 350 weather and climate disasters recorded domestically since 1980. Put together, these events were responsible for nearly 16,000 deaths and over $2.5 trillion in damages. 18 of these severe weather and climate disasters occurred just last year and cost us more than $165 billion to clean up. It was the third most expensive year since 1980, trailing only 2017 and 2005. In just weather-related disasters alone, climate change is costing Americans more than $5000 per second.

Extreme weather, more often than not, means blackouts. Between 2000 and 2021, extreme weather events caused roughly 83% of power outages across the U.S., and the average number of these weather-related blackouts grew by 78 percent between the first and the second half of the period. On average, American consumers endured seven hours and 20 minutes of outages in 2021, with five hours attributed exclusively to weather-related disruptions.

The truth remains that our electric grid is unequipped to handle peoples’ electric needs during extreme weather; for instance, when everyone in a town blasts their AC through a heatwave but the utility can’t get enough electricity through their wires. Most households and businesses have no alternative but to receive electricity through their utility from far-away large power plants. When the grid strains under the pressure of extreme heat, consumers are left without power. That means food, baby formula, and medicine spoils. Residents have dialysis machines that can’t function. Hospitals and emergency shelters cannot render aid to those in need. It is no surprise that most experts consider an unreliable grid to be a national security threat. The stakes are life and death.

As extreme weather events become more frequent and more severe, distributed, local clean energy can modernize the electric grid to be more flexible and responsive. Especially if consumers adopt grid-connected technologies. This, of course, enables consumers to help their utility maintain a more reliable electric grid by feeding excess electricity they produce into it, while simultaneously being compensated for their contributions. Families and businesses can feel the benefits on normal days as much as during extreme weather.

Locally-generated clean energy, such as rooftop solar or community solar, along with battery storage solutions are cheaper, stabler alternatives to polluting fossil fuels. Deploying at least 247 GW of local solar and 160 GW in local battery storage would save all energy consumers US $473 billion by 2050 by crowdsourcing improved grid resilience and reliability on the path to cutting carbon emissions to 95% of 1990 levels. The firm, The Brattle Group, released analysis in May that showed virtual power plants, such as local solar and storage, can provide the grid with 40-60% lower cost resource adequacy. These new technologies can improve the grid’s bottom line and reverse the trend where consumers are on the hook for decreasing grid reliability and higher electric bills.

Not only that, but DERs like community solar projects, neighborhood microgrids, virtual power plants, and income- based energy efficiency programs can lower the energy burdens on low-income communities and deliver on environmental justice.

Solar energy and battery storage technologies can revamp the grid into something that is cheaper, more stable and more equitable. With the historic investments passed by congress in 2022, clean energy technology, like solar, can be deployed faster and further than ever before. And, regardless of your position on clean energy or the climate, solar and battery storage technologies are a solution to needed grid failures. That’s the simple fact. We need clean energy to power the economy of the future and harnessing today’s local solar and storage technology can do the job. 

Robin Dutta

Robin Dutta is campaign director of Local Solar for All (LS4A), a non-profit business association focused on creating a modern and equitable distributed energy grid, LS4A works to amplify the benefits of smaller, distributed energy resources that produce power closer to the homes and communities where it’s being used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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