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Overcoming Inequity With Energy Storage


By: Maria Chavez

As the conversations for racial equity have intensified worldwide, so have conversations surrounding environmental justice. No matter the topic, work needs to be done across all fields of environmental studies. In the energy space, advocates for environmental justice have identified several issues where underrepresented groups have historically been excluded from critical conversations. These issues include equitable access to clean energy and the disproportionate negative effects of climate change on vulnerable communities.

The Problem with Peaker Plants

One example that demonstrates these problems is the use of fossil fuel peaker plants. Peaker plants are power plants that are used during times when energy demand is high. These plants usually run on natural gas and can be used for a few or several hours at a time, depending on the state of the grid. Excessive pollution from peaker plants results from fast ramp times and single-cycle operation. As of 2020, the US has over 1,000 peaker plants in operation. These plants are located disproportionately near low income communities, which can lead to long-term health problems when those residents are exposed to the plants’ harmful pollutants.

In addition to public health problems, peaker plants can result in costly fees for electricity customers, especially in large cities. According to a report from the PEAK Coalition, an estimated $4.5 billion in capacity payments have been paid by New York City residents to the public and private peaker plant owners from 2010-2020. Many of these New York plants operate less than 1% of the year. Addressing peak energy demand is a pressing challenge, and special care should be taken when already vulnerable communities face excessive negative impacts.

Finding an Equitable Solution

Emerging energy storage technologies have been used to alleviate stress from the grid during peak energy demand times. Systems that couple renewable energy plus storage are especially attractive to a clean energy transition. As storage technology advances, more diverse and long duration battery solutions have become available. Energy storage prices continue to experience declining costs, making battery storage a more reliable alternative. In May 2020, California utility Southern California Edison opted to install a 100 MW/400MWh lithium ion battery in place of previous plans that involved the construction of a natural gas peaker plant. This decision came after activists pushed back against the fossil fuel plant, at a time when battery storage benefits were also becoming more competitive. The energy storage facility is expected to begin operations in 2021.

The decision in California is one example of how citizen action and smart technology cost analysis is driving the transition toward clean energy solutions. Nearby residents will not only avoid the risk of harmful emissions but also be contributing to climate-friendly solutions with their utility bill instead of potentially unsustainable and unsafe alternatives. The next important step is for local, state, and federal governing bodies to ensure equitable access to clean energy for all—especially low income communities. According to the US Department of Energy, the energy burden for low income households is 3 times higher than that of higher income households. Implementation of clean energy policies must not overlook this burden; instead, policies must facilitate steps to building out efforts that are inclusive and beneficial for all people.

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