Briana Leone, Morgan Sarao, James Adams, Andrew Rosenthal, and Ali Kenner. "Research Brief - July 31, 2020." Energy in COVID-19. The Energy Vulnerability Project. Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography.
As increasingly documented even prior to the year 2020 and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rural-urban disparities felt across scales exist. The foregoing does include education disparities, nowadays particularly tied to digital access, or lack thereof, which is a reality for millions of households across the nation, as well as disparities faced in securing livelihood versus paying for one’s utilities. The digital divide, however, does not simply stem from lacking wireless connection but also from having an unreliable or outdated connection. The latter is common among many rural areas across the nation and was a reality for the Mifflin and Huntington counties, that is until 25 residents decided to form the Rural Broadband Cooperative. Below you can find the two artifacts detailing internet access (or in-access) faced by people in Pennsylvania. In terms of livelihood vs paying for utilities, the pandemic has further revealed the disparities faced by low-to-moderate income families and small businesses whose incomes and sources of livelihood have significantly decreased since the beginning of the pandemic, whilst bills continue to pile up in 90-day-past-due statements. Geographic disparities are also felt in terms of exposure to pollutants and virus deaths. Questions to consider while reading these artifacts are as follow: what do these lived experiences tell us about utility regulation? What kind of structural policies can we envision that would be able to address such geographical disparities? What kind of revelations do these articles bring forth with regard to utility providers, energy distributors, and policymakers?
Coronavirus 'collateral damage' hits U.S. rural power providers.
As devastating as the current pandemic is, virtually every work sector has been severely, negatively impacted by the need to shelter and perform socially distanced activities to stop and slow down the infection rates. That said, these measures have inadvertently impacted supply and demand chains, as recounted by Ron Mueller, who had to euthanize 3200 piglets of his 5000 supply, 64% of his livelihood. Not only was his hard work in caring for the piglets ‘thrown’ away, but losing 64% of his livelihood also meant Mueller could not keep up with his utility bill payments, an issue that is widespread across the United States and can potentially be severely damaging as disconnections resume in many states. In fact, according to the Energy Industry Consultants and Engineers (EICE), between the months of March and April, the 90-day past-due customers rose by 50%, a telling number of the ongoing crisis, as generated by the pandemic. Mueller’s story is one among the millions of similar experiences of other United States residents and the choice he faces between paying his utility bills and continuing to maintain his livestock is a further demonstration of the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on rural areas, even though rural areas have comparatively been less hit by COVID-19 than other areas. One frightening outlook to think about is the potential need of the electric companies to increase their rates to continue paying their own bills, a ripple effect that could prove even more devastating for many.
Internet speeds were awful, so these rural Pennsylvanians put up their own wireless tower.
Rural Pennsylvania has a history of unreliable internet service, as recounted by Mifflin and Huntington county residents. Just as much as not having an internet connection is part of the digital divide, so is having an unreliable and unstable internet connection. It is not uncommon for rural communities not to have reliable internet access, as documented by a 2016 FCC report where 39% of rural Americans lacked access to stable, high-speed internet. As recounted by some residents in the counties mentioned above, their internet was unreliable to the point they had to cancel streaming services given it would take hours for a snippet of a clip to load. Residents of the two counties also said internet providers like Comcast wanted to charge exorbitant prices to set up a slightly-above-the-average internet connection. Given the ‘dire’ situation, a group of 25 county residents decided to pool together their professions and create their own wireless service based on radio waves rather than use cable, a set up for which Comcast would have charged $80k. Instead, pooling together talents and their own funds, the 25 residents created their internet cooperative, Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC), for $60k. The project began in 2017 and was completed in 2019, the set-up fee from the cooperative is $300, with monthly costs ranging between $40 and $75. The cooperative has 40 paying members and serves a 15-mile radius. As mentioned prior, being unable to access the internet reliably in an increasingly digital-dependent society is tantamount to not having heating or cooling in extreme weather and can prove life-threatening at a time when telework is necessary to reduce contagions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and telehealth is used to keep everyone safe. Digital access nowadays also means access to work, education, and other necessary services that include applications for assistance; not having internet connectivity means being denied all of the foregoing resources.
Here’s how the City of Philadelphia plans to approach digital access issues over the next few months.
At the onset of the pandemic and the need to conduct remote schooling, the digital divide has only worsened. Students across the nations were unable to access their courses due to lacking access to wifi or even tablets or computers with which to work. The news story narrates the difficulties many adults and children will face as the pandemic progresses and as access to the internet is reduced, particularly if one considers how public internet access points are now shut down and inaccessible. Additionally, it is not simply a problem of accessing the internet but it is also a problem of being able to secure the necessary devices (tablets, computers, audio sets where necessary) to conduct remote work or schooling. Many families lack both internet and devices, others may lack either-or, but the heart of the issue is connectivity and connectedness through digital systems, one that many families cannot afford to secure. In this article, the reporter also notes efforts by the Digital Equity Coordinating Committee and the Digital Literacy Alliance to connect Philadelphians will have to be coordinated with the city’s School District plans to reopen, mainly as they also attempt to fulfill plans on digital equity. More realistically speaking, Chief Education Officer Hackney also notes the city needs to complete a lot of work to bring digital equity, even before one-on-one devices are distributed to Philadelphia communities.
Study of emissions and virus deaths implicates EPA policy
In other interesting aspects concerning energy and COVID-19, this artifact discusses potential nexuses between air pollution and risk of COVID-19 death. It is not uncommon for individuals living in highly polluted areas to develop respiratory illnesses. As a result, it is not unexpected to come to know greater polluted areas have correlated high deaths by COVID-19, since the virus attacks the respiratory and circulatory systems. According to the article, civil enforcement freeze makes the situation worse and potentially aggravates the mortality rate in these highly polluted areas. In fact, counties with higher pollution rates also reported 19% daily death rates from COVID-19, which was also shouldered by 39% increase in COVID-19 cases in those same areas. According to the article, some of the reasons why the foregoing exists is due to the fact polluters relax their pollution monitoring when regulation is also relaxed, which can work to aggravate respiratory infections and illnesses. This comes from analyses conducted on air quality, whereby ozone concentrations increased by 5%, and soot rose 13%. Both of the foregoing particles contribute to a host of respiratory ailments and tend to also disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities, correlations that are still being examined according to the article.
Carey, N. (2020, July 8). “Coronavirus 'collateral damage' hits U.S. rural power providers.” Reuters.
Gross, P. (2020, July 14). Here's how the City of Philadelphia plans to approach digital access issues over the next few months. Technically.
Nark, J. (2020, July 05). Internet speeds were awful, so these rural Pennsylvanians put up their own wireless tower. The Philly Inquirer.
Reilly, S. (2020, July 17). “AIR POLLUTION: Study of Emissions and Virus Deaths Implicates EPA Policy.” E&E News Greenwire.
The second edition of our research brief reflects topics of discussion as unfolding in headlines within the past couple of weeks. Topics of discussion include the ensuing economic crises and its impacts on varied scales, responses and implications of COVID19 for energy in rural America and other amplified disparities (digital divide, environmental injustice), and the formation of new coalitions and partnerships for sustainable transitions. Several of the foregoing themes are extensions of the topics covered and discussed in our inaugural brief.
In a broader thematic grouping, the following articles all detail ways in which the energy field is moving within and to cope with the pandemic. Coverage on sustainable energy transitions, as occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, the artifacts here present detail the ways in which different stakeholders are conceptualizing energy adaptations to renewable and carbon-free sources and the way these same stakeholders push for policies and plans to actualize said conceptualizations. Specific to this section, attention should be given to discussions of collaboration, or lack thereof, between stakeholders in the industry. Lastly, one other dimension to consider in this broader collective is the ways in which artifacts all detail stressors experienced by energy systems as a result of the pandemic.
Hundreds of solar companies urge Congress to expand solar ITC and add direct pay option.
Six-hundred and fifty companies wrote a letter to Congress to call for an extension of the solar investment tax credit (ITC). This comes from the stresses placed on the renewable energy industry as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation and took away 72,000 jobs. Given the devastating effects of the pandemic, the company representatives who signed the letter to Congress called for the ITC to be extended to allow for both commercial and residential investors to fully benefit from the tax credit. The companies made this request given ITCs rely on tax equity markets, which are tied to economies reopening but this would make it even more expensive to acquire funding or keep the lights on. This extension would also benefit many seeking to invest in solar given the credit began a gradual step-down and will continue to do so until it reaches 10% in 2022 for commercial and utility scale investors, and will zero-out for residential investors. Discussions of renewables are increasingly present in public discourse, especially as they continue to be stressed by dwindling job opportunities, halted projects, and reduced demands.
Utilities Propose First Regional Grid-Balancing Market in Southeastern US.
This article narrates how Southeastern utilities, after months of discussions, are planning to create the first interstate energy transmission market for low wholesale distribution of energy. This new wholesale distribution would also include plans to safeguard the climate and comes from the need of the Southeast and the West of the United States to invest in an organized transmission market. Another reason utilities plan to invest in this energy distribution is to potentially address the ever more frequent and harder-to-handle grid imbalances, that are occasionally worsened by intermittent supplies of wind and solar supplies. Clean energy groups, however, revealed they were not included in these plans, as also stated by independent power producers and consumer advocates. Utilities involved in the planning rebutted there was no communication because of the signed NDAs, as stated Drew Elliot from ElectriCities. Senior Attorney for Southern Environmental law, Rambo, did state utilities have a history of failing to fulfill customer and clean energy benefits, especially as the plan lacks details and structure. This article, while not specifically addressing COVID-19 effects, does speak to the changing necessities of the grids as people stay at home. Questions should be directed towards whether or not utilities can provide this market affordably to their customers and what implications it will constitute for future energy production and distribution.
Sustainable Recovery: World Energy Outlook Special Report.
In this artifact, which directly relates to the stressors experienced by the energy systems throughout this pandemic, the International Energy Agency (IEA) calls for governments to make economic and energy recovery sustainable and resilient. The question is: what does sustainable and resilient mean when it comes to energy systems? According to the report, making energy systems sustainable and resilient would include addressing core existing issues in energy systems as worsened by the global recession and unemployment. The global recession and unemployment should also be considered in and of themselves as actors in the resilience and sustainability of future energy systems. The foregoing comes from the notion that any decisions being taken now will ultimately determine whether or not the world has a chance at meeting and fulfilling long-term energy and climate goals. The plan presented by the IEA foretells the need to spend $1 trillion a year for the next three years if governments wish to truly fulfill sustainability and resilience plans. If the IEA’s plans for the future are successfully implemented, energy systems could and would become more sustainable, reducing global CO2 emissions, dropping pollutant emissions by 5%, and increasing the potential for better, more efficient grid systems if necessary investments are performed. This report highlights the interconnectedness of the energy systems to the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home measures that have placed further stress on those systems.
Galford, C. (2020, July 15). “Hundreds of solar companies urge Congress to expand solar ITC and add direct pay option.” Daily Energy Insider.
International Energy Agency. (2020). Sustainable Recovery: World Energy Outlook Special Report. OECD.
St. John, J. (2020, July 14). “Utilities Propose First Regional Grid-Balancing Market in Southeastern US.” Green Tech Media.
This section is specifically dedicated to showcasing the discourse on the economic downturn that has severely hit the United States economy as entire industry sectors were forced to close. This economic downturn was felt on multiple scales, including in the scale of energy vulnerable households, in the energy efficiency industry, and in-home contracting. Each and every one of the following artifacts illustrates the nature of the impact felt within these scales and leave room for questioning what kind of structural policies are needed to help and offset the economic imbalances felt.
NYC gives at risk seniors AC units, Philly asks them to find relief in a neighbor’s home.
In an echo of the first research brief, extreme heat and vulnerability are still at the heart of the COVID-19 discourse given the need to shelter at home to reduce the contagions. The article details the different but similar experiences witnessed by New York and Philadelphia residents as the pandemic continues to unfold. Measure taken to combat the potential for heat strokes and other heat illnesses vary by city. Where New York City is giving away air conditioning units to its residents, to help those who cannot afford cooling units, Philadelphia officials, who claim they do not have funding to implement a similar program to New York City’s own, called for Philadelphia residents to shelter at friends or relatives’ homes and are also trying to distribute fans to those who cannot. While funding is an issue, Philadelphia’s administration’s call to shelter at friends or relatives’ homes comes at a stark discord with the recommendations issued by CDC, but also general public fears of contracting or bringing the virus to potentially vulnerable people. The pandemic is truly revealing and further stressing already precarious situations and environments and little seems to be happening in terms of structural change.
New safety guidelines lead to challenges as efficiency contractors return to work.
Extending discussions in the energy sectors, retrofits and home construction works have also been hardly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In New Hampshire, however, moves to restart the home contracting work have been tied to COVID-19 safety and hazards training, that include working with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on the part of contractors. However, even where trainings are meant to protect contractors and allow them to resume employment, there is noticeable pushback from contractors who say protective googles may hinder their work as they fogs up, or it may even lead to heat strokes and heat illnesses for work to be conducted in extreme heat weather. Other contractors blatantly said these new safety guidelines ignore the nature of their work, but the Massachusetts firm that instituted these guidelines did say there has to be a collaborative effort from everyone in order for work to resume and safety to be maintained. Something to keep in mind, however, are the growing concerns for safety by the consumers of these services. An Eversource customer survey recently revealed that 43% of customers were not comfortable with contractors entering their homes and 71% said they would be more comfortable if contractors followed safety protocols similar to the ones created by Environmental Health Engineering (EH&E). All in all, the foregoing is a further example of how COVID-19 is shaping and will continue to shape discourse, public relations, and interrelation. Questions to think about are: What will the energy efficiency and retrofit sector look like post-COVID-19, be it now, in a month, in a year, or five years out? How will public trust and public interactions develop and unfold as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?
Negotiations Intensify this Week on New COVID-19 Package.
Part of this brief’s thematic on stresses placed on energy systems, this article details the great losses experienced in the energy industry at the onset and continuation of the pandemic, particularly in the energy efficiency field. Related mainly to contractors’ inability to access homes during stay-at-home and social distancing measures, the industry saw roughly 360,000 jobs being lost to the advent of the pandemic. According to the Alliance to Save Energy this record job loss for the industry is tantamount to twice the job losses in the coal industry, equivalent to combined losses in both wind and solar industries and three times as much as the losses witnessed in oil and gas markets. All of the foregoing, however, are attributed to the pandemic and call for a possible revisitation of another stimulus package that is part of the solutions to combat the economic depression generated in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The negotiations for a new package solely dedicated to the energy sector are under-way and fossil-fuel recovery plans are being contested by clean energy advocates to instead focus on clean energy measures, shouldered by conservative energy entities. The Paycheck Protection Program that has benefitted mining, oil, and gas extractors (receiving about $4.5 billion) and utilities ($1.5 billion) for keeping their staff on their payroll has also been critiqued and may be subject to revision “after reports have surfaced of aid being doled out to large and well-capitalized companies.”
New report finds Texas utility-scale solar growth may push remaining coal plants into retirement.
In line with some of the points made in the Sustainable Recovery report written by the IEA, discussions of energy transitions in Texas detail how the coal industry might be left to dust by 2025. With the Oklaunion plant already in line for retirement this fall, other coal plants are also set to close in the next five years. This reveals a trend toward the economic restructuring of the energy markets in Texas, but it also means many will lose their jobs right at the heart and unfolding of the economic downturn. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent to which capitalist systems can be stressed by invisible enemies such as COVID-19. Reflections on this artifact and energy transitions should focus on the implications of said transitions and plans for the future, as well as funding to be allocated.
Cahlink, G. (2020, July 20). “Negotiations Intensify This Week on New COVID-19 Package.” E&E News.
Jaramillo, C. (2020, July 9). “As NYC gives at-risk seniors AC units, Philly asks them to find relief in a neighbor’s home.” WHYY.
Misbrener, K. (2020, July 13). “New report finds Texas utility-scale solar growth may push remaining coal plants into retirement.” Solar Power World.
IMAGE - Palazzi, T. & Seif, D. (2018, February 28). “Why distributed solar is winning in Texas.” GreenBiz.
Thill, D. (2020, July 8). “New safety guidelines lead to challenges as efficiency contractors return to work.” Energy News Network.