Outages and outrages: The fossil fuel industry exploits blackout fears
In a hotter world, we can expect more power outages — both from surging demand and from climate-driven disasters. The question is, how can we protect vulnerable people when the power goes out? Getting it right will be a key energy equity test for the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan.
The gas utilities want to burn more fossil fuels or hydrogen in power plants to do the job. Environmental justice groups and other advocates want new, cleaner options like community-based solar and battery storage solutions.
This contest between new and old, fossil fuels and renewables, clean and polluting, will come to shape the country’s future climate policy — and President Biden’s infrastructure plan.
New reports highlight what’s at stake. Last week, research confirmed what the environmental justice community has known for years: The combination of increasing power outages and higher levels of extreme heat “may be the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine.”
The study, conducted by researchers at several universities, found that major grid outages have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015. At the same time, periods of extreme heat have become increasingly common in urban areas. The researchers looked at three cities — Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix — and found that at least two-thirds of their residents would be at risk from heat exhaustion or heat stroke under those dangerous conditions.
Exposure to extreme temperatures is already responsible for more deaths than any other type of severe weather. Another recent study estimated that high temperatures result in the premature death of 12,000 people in the United States each year. The threat is even greater to low-income families who don’t have air conditioners and who can’t afford higher energy bills when outside temperatures spike.
Cities are not prepared to handle this emerging climate threat. The university study found that cooling centers in the cities evaluated can only handle 1 to 2 percent of residents, and none are required to have backup power. Some have diesel generators, which often fail or run out of fuel during a serious outage; they can also be deadly to operate.
To most, this represents a major public health threat. But to the gas industry, this crisis is an opportunity to pitch more fossil fuels, according to explosive leaked documents discovered this past week.
The Boston Globe and E&E News published a confidential gas industry presentation on the industry’s plans to combat climate decarbonization strategies that depend on electrification technologies like solar and battery storage.
Industry representatives admit that natural gas is in the “fight of its life.” And what is their strategy to convince the public to keep burning gas? One slide revealed their plan: take advantage of power outage fears.
Many gas developers already have proposed continued investment in fossil fuel-based resources — and to blend and burn hydrogen with gas — because, they say, renewables will lead to more frequent power outages.
Most environmental justice advocates have figured out this gambit — and now they have the industry’s private game plan to prove their point. Right now, power plant developers have proposed rather sketchy plans to keep natural gas power plants running with some “blending” of hydrogen or the future promise of switching to 100 percent hydrogen combustion.
The problem is, burning hydrogen in power plants results in uncontrolled release of nitrogen oxide emissions, a dangerous public health threat. So these proposals could lead to decades more harmful nitrogen oxide emissions in communities of color, when we should be rapidly eliminating all combustion-related emissions. We’ve run into this problem before.
The real goal of hydrogen combustion is not to improve reliability or prevent outages, but to preserve the fossil industry’s stranded assets. In a 2020 report, Goldman Sachs said the quiet part out loud. The global bank said that hydrogen burning in the power sector would give the gas industry “a second life” to keep its plants running indefinitely. As a European hydrogen executive bluntly put it, “It’s a way to avoid having stranded assets from the current fossil-fuel based system.”
This hydrogen push is especially unfortunate because clean energy is even more reliable than any fossil or hydrogen alternatives. A recent analysis of New York City peaker power plants found that, in addition to meeting all of the region’s energy needs during critical times of high energy demand, replacing gas plants with renewables and energy storage would save ratepayers billions in energy costs, while avoiding the environmental and public health impacts of power plant emissions.
When outages do occur, solar and battery storage systems at residences and community-serving facilities can power essential services like cooling during extreme heat. For example, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., is installing solar and batteries to serve its community members as a county-designated clean air filtration and cooling center.
But the argument about the right technology path is far from settled. The new Biden infrastructure plan, and Biden’s statement in favor of hydrogen combustion in power plants, raises concerns about how it will also protect communities of color from more fossil pollution.
The cleaner, more equitable path is clear. First, the Biden infrastructure plan should not support hydrogen combustion in power plants unless key public health and equity concerns are addressed. There must be a moratorium on large-scale hydrogen combustion in the power sector until there are independently verified studies on the level of nitrogen oxide pollution coming from such plants, the availability of nitrogen oxide air pollution control technology that can work with hydrogen, and the cumulative public health impacts of this new source of nitrogen oxide emissions.
Second, the administration should commit significant funding to help install clean, reliable sources of distributed power — such as solar and battery storage systems — in underserved communities across the country, in cooling centers and other facilities providing essential services.
These actions could help protect the most vulnerable from dual emerging threats: the power outages and heat waves of a changing climate; and the fossil fuel industry’s plan to exploit those disasters to advance their own interests.
Lewis Milford, an attorney, is founder and president of Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit that works to advance clean energy technologies and combat climate change.
Abbe Ramanan is a project Manager at Clean Energy Group, where she focuses on resilient power and hydrogen issues for environmental justice communities.