The case for equitable energy storage in Pennsylvania

Contributed by Odette Mucha, Vote Solar and Liz Robinson, Philadelphia Solar Energy Association

As we know, solar power provides a wide range of benefits to Pennsylvanians. It creates local jobs, with PA currently home to over 400 solar companies with over 4,300 solar workers. Solar power brings tax revenue to our communities, and the solar industry has cumulatively invested over $2.5 billion in the Keystone State. And solar power cleans our air. In fact, Yale estimates that we could avoid over 11,500 premature deaths in the Commonwealth by switching from coal to cleaner sources like solar. As the sweeping benefits of solar power become more widely understood, and as Pennsylvania begins to invest more seriously in clean energy, energy storage must also be a big part of the conversation. 

What is energy storage? Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a way to capture unused energy and save it for later use. The electricity grid is a complex system, characterized by constantly-changing supply and demand. Scaling up energy storage can help smooth out spikes and keep the lights on reliably without activating highly-polluting fossil fuel peaker plants. In fact, our grid already uses storage to reduce peak demand, saving consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.  Just like solar, the cost of energy storage has fallen dramatically in the last ten years. Storage has dropped more than 70 percent between 2015 and 2019 —and is now a cost-effective option.   Storage can also provide meaningful relief for energy-burdened Pennsylvanians and is proving to be a critical tool in our toolbelt as we mitigate our worsening climate crisis. 

Read more: Connecticut sets goal to deploy 1 GW of energy storage

For examples of equitable storage deployment done well, we only need to look as far as Connecticut or Maryland. As part of its grid modernization process,  Connecticut’s new Electricity Storage Program includes strong provisions to benefit low and moderate income communities and offers upfront incentives to all customers to add storage. Maryland has prioritized transparency, with its Energy Storage Pilot Program requiring that all emissions reductions resulting from storage projects be reported. 

Pennsylvania should apply the principles of equity and transparency to our own storage implementation, as Vote Solar and PSEA recently commented. Climate change does not affect everyone equally. It has the most devastating impacts in environmental justice communities — where nearly a  third of Pennsylvania residents live. These communities are more likely to be harmed by pollutants, including from fossil fuel plants, and experience nearly twice as many high-heat days as more affluent communities due to the urban heat island effect. 

Investment in energy storage projects should prioritize communities suffering high levels of pollution and consider if a project will reduce reliance on fossil fuels and thereby, improve public health. Will it spur economic development or solar ownership? 

As costs and benefits are considered, it should also be determined whether storage can be strategically combined with other “non-wires solutions” like distributed generation or energy efficiency. When deployed in tandem, these tools can mean lower costs and increased reliability for ratepayers. 

As we imagine what 2022 may hold in store for us with the start of the new year, let’s add equitable energy storage to the list. As the body responsible for ensuring safe, reliable, and affordable electricity for Pennsylvania ratepayers, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PA PUC) now has an opportunity to advance the equitable deployment of energy storage as a means of combating climate change, advancing energy equity, and modernizing the Commonwealth’s electric grid. Having solicited public comment on the topic twice over the past two years, the PA PUC can now boldly act to put Pennsylvania on the energy storage map. They should rise to meet that opportunity and make just, cost-effective energy storage a pillar of Pennsylvania’s utility system. 

About the authors:

Odette Mucha is the Mid-Atlantic Regulatory Director at Vote Solar, a nationwide non-profit fighting for a 100% clean energy future. Liz Robinson is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Solar Energy Association. They recently submitted comments on equitable energy storage to the PA PUC along with other allied groups.