Energy justice and disaster recovery

Solar panels on top of a house with a tree in the front

About energy and disasters 

Energy is a key piece of disaster resiliency. People rely on electricity and gas for food, medicine, staying cool or warm, and many other daily activities. Energy systems are often disrupted during disasters. Unfortunately, our current energy systems are also a primary contributor to carbon emissions and climate change, worsening disasters.  Energy systems are also often connected directly to disaster creation. For example, electrical lines have started many devastating wildfires

Impacts of power outages and environmental injustice on frontline communities 

California has the highest energy costs in the country, and those costs burden low-income households who, on average, only use marginally less electricity than wealthier households. Low-income households may spend up to three times as much of their household income proportionately on energy as non-low-income households.  Meanwhile, power failures in disaster events have disparate impacts on frontline households and communities. While more affluent people, schools, and hospitals may have backup generators, communities with fewer resources may lose power for days or weeks on end, which can place health and livelihoods at risk. Finally, frontline communities often also face the brunt of the negative direct effects of the fossil fuel industry. Neighborhoods near fracking installations and oil refineries experience polluted air and groundwater.  

The power of renewable energy 

Disaster recovery can be an opportunity to rebuild systems and re-envision communities to be more resilient, equitable, and just. Since disasters often damage the energy generation and distribution system, the recovery process is an opportunity to promote renewable energy.  Environmentally sustainable energy generation can often also be more resilient to future disasters. 

Rooftop solar energy offers economical, climate, and disaster resilience benefits for households and communities.  These include: 

  • reduced carbon emissions, 

  • reduced energy costs, 

  • local control over energy production and consumption, 

  • redundancy to the energy grid, building resilience to disasters and power shutoffs, and 

  • green jobs and opportunities for job training programs for the installation and maintenance of a decentralized energy system.

Barriers and challenges  

To date, solar power has primarily benefited wealthier homeowners. Although the State is taking steps in the right direction, there are not enough ways for renters to participate in renewable energy programs. Residents of rental buildings often do not influence their building's power source, leaving out a large and disproportionately low-income population entirely. Net metering, in which a property owner can sell unused energy back to the grid, can raise utilities to compensate for lost revenue, which disproportionately impacts people with low incomes.  

Actions to take 

For individuals and households

  • Use State and local programs to fund your renewable energy goals.  

  • Due to new legislation (AB 327), new programs support solar panel installation in disadvantaged communities. The Disadvantaged Community – Single-family Solar Homes (DAC-SASH) program installs solar panels on single-family homes in disadvantaged communities and includes a budget of $10 million for the years 2019-2030. So far, the program has installed 515 photovoltaic (PV) systems.  

  • Some cities like Richmond already have impressive solar panel installation programs for low-income households. Explore your city’s website to see if they offer any similar programming.  

For community-based organizations and affordable housing providers 

  • Investigate The Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program, which provides financial incentives for installing photovoltaic (PV) energy systems on multifamily affordable housing in California.   

  • Identify ways to pass on savings from PV energy systems to residents. 

  • Identify solar installation contractors that train and employ apprentices from low-income backgrounds. 

For local and State government  

  • Identify community solar goals, funding mechanisms, and needs before disaster strikes. Describe how you will use and increase access to renewable energy in your Pre-Disaster Recovery Plans.  

  • Use HUD CDBG-DR funding to advance the deployment of renewable energy sources in rebuilding. 

  • Consider Community choice aggregators (CCAs), which allow individuals or consortiums of local government to control energy provision and purchase their own energy, often at rates similar to or lower than that provided by the traditional investor-owned utilities. 

  • Continue to develop new State programs to advance energy justice, especially post-disaster.   

  • Create job training programs for people from frontline communities to work in the green energy economy.

  • For example, set up local revolving loan funds that offer low-cost and low-barrier financing to low-income households that want rooftop solar when they rebuild. Such financing should also be available to multifamily housing property owners so that renters can also benefit from rooftop solar energy. 

  • Set very strong regulations on utility companies to do important maintenance and upgrades to their systems.  

For philanthropy 

  • Support advocacy efforts that encourage strong regulations for utility companies and more funding for renewable energy for frontline communities. 

  • Compliment government funds that make it possible for people with low incomes to participate in advancing energy justice.  

  • People Powered Solar is a great model for using energy as a power building and self-determination tool for frontline communities.  

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