Baltimore is hooking up a black mega-church with a critical solar battery – Grist

Empowerment Temple, a predominantly black mega-church in Baltimore's Park Heights, is a place where neighbors often receive free meals, school supplies, and drive-through COVID-19 tests. Soon they will also be able to visit the long, beige-colored building to charge cell phones, cool medicine, and cool down (or warm up) the next time there is a power outage.

City and state agencies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip the Church of Maryland and other facilities with solar panels and battery storage systems.

“One of the hallmarks of our ministry is 'How can we help people in need,'” said Anthony Robinson, a church member and leader of the nonprofit Economic Empowerment Coalition that helps implement the clean energy project. "We see this as an opportunity to serve the wider community."

Construction of a 120-kilowatt rooftop solar array is slated to begin this month, which will power battery batteries in the church. Should tornadoes and flash floods destroy the grid – as this month in the wake of Ida – the building will become a source of energy in the neighborhood, which is largely low-income. Like other resilience hubs in Baltimore, Empowerment Temple will also be able to use the systems to cut its own utility bills by selling excess solar power to the utility and taking it off the batteries when utility power is expensive.

The church's battery will have a capacity of nearly 500 kilowatt hours, which is a measure of how much energy the system can store or discharge in an hour. (The average household in Maryland uses about 975 kilowatt hours per month, according to 2019 data.) In practice, that battery capacity means Empowerment Temple can use three days of backup power to keep lights and appliances running in a designated common area.

"Low- to middle-income communities are typically the least resourceful places during disasters," said Lenwood Coleman, chief program officer at Groundswell, a nonprofit solar developer who works with the City of Baltimore to plan and build the hubs design. The partners identify up to 30 additional locations that could accommodate solar-plus storage systems, together with the solar installer Suncatch Energy and the technology provider A.F. Mensah.

The initiative "allows us to see churches and schools as a place where people can conveniently come during a power outage or outage to get support they normally wouldn't," Coleman said.

Cars are parked along a West Baltimore Street in March 2018. DAVID GANNON / AFP via Getty Images

Baltimore's resilience hubs are being rolled out as solar-plus storage is making its way across the country. In recent years, the US energy storage market has seen more than 20-fold annual growth, from 161 megawatt hours of total new storage capacity in 2015 to an additional 3,700 megawatt hours in 2020, according to energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. This includes systems on a supply scale that absorb wind and solar energy, but also smaller systems in hospitals, industrial plants and single-family homes.

For residential storage alone – which in most cases means batteries combined with solar panels – new project capacity is expected to almost double in 2021 compared to last year, said Chloe Holden, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie. Falling costs and growing battery options are driving more and more people to install the technology. However, Holden said that "the number one selling point" for battery storage is backup power. Without a battery system, most solar systems are automatically switched off in the event of a mains-operated power failure. According to an analysis by Climate Central, major power outages will become more frequent and prolonged as the country's aging infrastructure collapses under the flood of climate-related weather events.

In the case of rooftop solar systems and electric vehicles, state and federal subsidy programs in the past have given early adopters money or garage space to invest in new technologies. Community groups and policymakers in Maryland, California, Illinois, and other states are working to ensure that low-income residents are involved in energy storage programs from the outset.

"We need to ensure that the (storage) market develops fairly as it expands," said Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell. "That it doesn't just apply to those who can afford it."

The sun shines on solar panels in South Baltimore's City of Refuge. In addition, the non-profit organization was equipped with a battery storage system.
Courtesy Suncatch Energy

Power outages are common in Maryland, where extreme heat waves, severe flooding, and high winds regularly disrupt the grid. In Louisiana, the outages caused by Hurricane Ida in late August are expected to last for weeks. Earlier this year, more than 4 million Texas customers lost power in a deadly winter storm.

"What people are experiencing now is a huge disruption all the time, across the country," said Vikram Aggarwal, CEO of EnergySage, an online marketplace for solar and storage systems. He said the Texas site's traffic skyrocketed in late February after the winter outages and that a higher percentage of customers are looking for batteries today than they were before the storm.

In drought-stricken California, utility companies have started proactively turning off electricity to prevent electrical appliances from igniting fires on hot, windy days. Last year, California's Utilities Agency approved more than $ 1 billion in funding for the state's self-generation incentive program through 2024. The program known as SGIP offers upfront discounts for the installation of energy storage systems. This is also mainly the reason why the Golden State has more than 80 percent of the small storage capacity in the country.

Don Young, a homeowner in Marin County, Northern California, said a nearly four-day power shutdown in 2019 made him think about solar-plus storage. His 4.8 kilowatt SunPower system can keep his lights and appliances running even during brief power outages, of which he has seen two since installing the array in March. Young received a $ 2,000 discount on the system, which cost north of $ 32,000. He said he expected to recoup that sum in seven years from selling solar power and saving on electricity bills.

Still, such a price tag remains prohibitively expensive for many people. Larger systems, including those installed in Baltimore, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain. To this end, California offers SGIP rebates with equity resilience that can cover almost, if not all, the cost of battery storage systems in homes or critical facilities. In Oregon, policymakers recently allocated $ 10 million to expand the state's Solar + Storage rebate program, which enables low- to middle-income customers to receive up to 60 percent of the cost of a storage system; other customers can receive up to 40 percent.

"Low-income individuals don't even have the extra income to fund a solar panel, so we can't expect them to fund storage," said Olivia Nedd, policy director of Vote Solar's access and equity program. She said government energy storage policies should include "carve-outs" – guarantees that disadvantaged communities receive a certain percentage of funding or total installations – and invest in customer engagement and demonstration projects so that people in low-income neighborhoods learn how to access such opportunities . Without conscious steps, Nedd said, solar-plus storage programs will bypass the people who could benefit the most from backup power. This includes the medically weak and those who cannot leave the city if the network goes dark for a long period of time.

Not all solar equity programs focus on recruiting individuals. Some states have tried to expand participation through “shared energy storage”. This usually refers to utility-owned projects that are designed to keep lights on in areas with frequent business interruptions, especially during extreme weather events.

In Illinois, the energy utility ComEd launched one of the country's first CES pilot projects in the village of Beecher in 2017. The company installed a 25-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, which is sufficient to supply three participating houses with emergency power for around an hour, close to existing grid systems. David O’Dowd, a ComEd spokesperson, said the Beecher system remains operational and the utility is developing a handful of energy storage projects in northern Illinois. On the South Side of Chicago, ComEd is running two pilot projects to improve power reliability in the Bronzeville district. One of the new battery systems is connected to a 3,000-panel rooftop solar array that spans Dearborn Homes, a 16-building housing estate.

While community energy storage is aimed at keeping grid infrastructure running smoothly, community-led initiatives such as Baltimore's resilience hubs are designed to maintain power in vulnerable neighborhoods when the opposite occurs.

On the other side of the city, next to the Empowerment Temple, another hub is already operating its solar-plus storage system. City of Refuge, a nonprofit, completed a 110-kilowatt solar and 430-kilowatt-hour battery system at their youth center in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Baltimore earlier this summer. The technology recently caused the center's refrigerators to hum and the fans to buzz during a power outage caused by a thunderstorm. But the biggest impact to date has been the savings on electricity bills, said Billy Humphrey, City of Refuge founder and CEO.

Workers install solar panels on the roof of the nonprofit City of Refuge building in South Baltimore. Courtesy Suncatch Energy

He estimated the organization has saved between 30 and 50 percent in electricity bills in the past few months – money that can now be used for charitable causes. Prior to the pandemic, the City of Refuge in Brooklyn, considered a "food wasteland" due to its lack of affordable, healthy foods, was serving around 250 ready-to-eat meals a week. Today the organization serves around 2,000 meals a week, mostly for families facing unemployment.

"The pandemic has certainly helped us test our motto of a resilience hub," said Humphrey.

But even with such savings and falling battery costs, the up-front costs for energy storage can still be sufficient to drive similar projects at least without additional funding. Baltimore Resiliency Hub Initiative partners hope the federal government will provide much-needed support for the next round of resilience hubs in the city, most notably through the $ 1 trillion infrastructure draft now tabled in Congress.

The goal is to distribute the next 30 solar-plus storage systems evenly across Baltimore so that no one has to travel too far to find help, said Brad Boston, founder and president of Suncatch Energy. The solar installation company helps investigate potential new projects and offers hands-on vocational training for people struggling to find work. Suncatch trained two people each for the City of Refuge project and another location in southwest Baltimore.

Boston thought about how resilience hubs could serve other extremely weather-prone cities like New Orleans, where many of its family members live. While he recognizes that technology cannot completely stop storms like Hurricane Ida, providing electricity is an important step in helping locals recover faster. "There could have been a lot more points of contact for people who couldn't walk," said Boston. "We have to do everything we can, everywhere."

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