A firefighter battles a wildfire known as the Maria Fire in Somis, Calif., in October 2019. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Other events, like a pandemic, can also disrupt access to electricity due to the limited pool of skilled workers. The timely restoration of an outage event is unlikely if illness (or other circumstances) limit the availability of skilled talent.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some utilities sequestered essential workers to ensure continuity of service. But utility service personnel may also cover a wide geographical area, moving from one community to the next, which can increase infectious disease exposure both to the community and to the workers themselves.
What we can do?
Local electricity generation can insulate communities against these challenges. Solar- and wind-generated electricity, as well as battery storage, are cost-effective and reliable. These alternative generation sources tend to be small-scale and located close to those who will use the electricity.
In addition, renewable resources do not need an outside fuel source, like diesel or natural gas. Disease outbreaks and severe weather events affect the supply and transportation of these fuel sources — refineries shut down and pipelines are damaged. Technologies such as solar photovoltaics tend to be low-maintenance and present an opportunity to train local workers to maintain the infrastructure.
A microgrid — a self-sufficient, energy-generating distribution and control system — puts communities on the path to self-reliance. It integrates the source of the electricity with consumption loads, such as homes and businesses, in a connected system, allowing the community to operate in isolation when the utility-scale electricity supply is interrupted.
Building resilient communities
During the California power outage in 2019, Blue Lake Rancheria helped nearby communities. It converted a hotel to a newspaper office to boost communication and took in critical patients from the county hospitals. Non-residents lined up at gas stations and convenience stores to stock up on resources they didn’t have access to in their own communities due to the power outages.
Cost and regulations are among the major obstacles to local electricity generation and the adoption of microgrids. Communities need access to capital to invest in these technologies, but it is often out of reach. In addition, myriad regulations govern the generation, distribution and sale of electricity, and these uncertainties can be difficult to navigate.
In Canada, there are various incentives programs across the provinces to help communities investing in green infrastructure. For example, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has multiple funding programs, like the Green Municipal Fund, that assist municipal partners from creating plans to funding capital projects. In British Columbia, the Community Energy Leadership Program has a guide listing resources and support for communities interested in undertaking clean energy projects.
Communities should engage in community energy planning to help define community priorities around energy and establish actions to achieve the community’s energy goals. The plan showcases a community’s commitment to taking action and advocates for support on funding opportunities and policy changes. The planning process drives education and awareness within local partners on the importance of a reliable electricity supply.
Shifting the focus of renewable electricity generation from a purely economic lens to one that sees the value in its many societal benefits — energy independence and security, skilled local jobs, zero-emissions electricity — can help build more energy-resilient communities.