Solar (Over)Powers The Bay Area’s Power Outage Problems

Power outages leave the Bay Area dark, but solar power can light it up for good.

The Autumn of 2019 may feel like a lifetime ago considering all that’s happened this year, but those in the Bay Area remember it all too well- heatwaves, the looming threat of wildfires, and notably: power outages. The Bay Area had to adjust to the power being cut out at any time, disrupting the lives of many — with over 800,000 people in 34 counties that were affected by outages that they were told could last multiple days. Thankfully, these outages were a one-time thing, and people of the Bay Area can rest easy …right?

We wish. These outages are not going away anytime soon. In fact, the CEO of PG&E has said that these outages will likely become the new normal during wildfire season, and are expected to go on for at least the next decade. What’s worse is that the wildfire season is expected to be longer, creating a larger window for power outages and affecting more and more people. Many of us in 2020 have had to evacuate or were in danger of our homes burning down, and it’s only September. Bay Area homeowners now have to assess their options — get used to these outages, or use their resources to sustainably adapt to them.

Cal Fire, August 31 2020

Before going in further, it’s important to note why these power outages are expected to increase, and their links to climate change. These outages are by PG&E themselves, executed in order to prevent wildfires that can start with one wayward spark, and make sure that energy supply meets demand. The wildfires are exacerbated by high temperatures which allow for drier, more flammable plants, and higher winds which can accelerate the spread of a wildfire. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, higher temperatures are expected to dry up more plants that can easily catch on fire. PG&E infrastructure was unprepared for wildfires, leading to widespread damage last year. These power outages are the result of PG&E trying to prevent further wildfire damage, which is expected to exceed that of last year.

With this in mind, Bay Area homeowners have accepted that this will be part of their lives for the foreseeable future, and have to adjust accordingly. The government, more than any one individual, has to prepare for financially and physically vulnerable people to go without power and figure out how to prevent that from happening. What’s needed is the perfect mix of government and private investment, allowing the Bay to use this situation to help invest in better sources of energy, curbing the need for grid power.

The Bay Area has one thing to its advantage — its wealth. In fact, according to California’s Geography of Health by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, “The San Francisco Bay Area, where the average zip code has a net worth over $450,000 per resident, is the state’s wealthiest region”. With such vast financial resources, Bay Area residents can invest in renewable energy that can ease the disruptions that power outages bring while also making the region more sustainable. The state has proclaimed in the past that it has a goal of the state’s energy needs coming 100% from clean, Carbon-free energy sources by 2045. These outages can be what motivates California to finally take public and private measures to achieve this goal.

The best source of renewable energy that Bay Area Homeowners have access to is solar power. California generates 20% of its power from solar energy, and it is the most tried and true source of renewable energy that would benefit Bay Area Homeowners. In an area with plenty of sun and rare bad weather days, solar power would be efficient. While there are concerns that its supply chain is problematic as the manufacture itself is not necessarily sustainable, the negative environmental effects of solar power are far outweighed by the negative environmental effects of coal, making solar power a much better alternative.

Solar power is a viable sustainable and financial alternative to coal. Solar can eventually lead to virtually $0 in electricity bills, adding a financial incentive to pursue it. People want to be ethical as long as it is in their best financial interest as well, and tax breaks/credits allow for solar power’s financial burden to be eased, which already would not be much of a burden for those in some of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Whether it be partial power or fully powered, solar power can easily become a sustainable solution for Bay Area homeowners.

The power outages were by no means limited to the wealthy. While those wealthy enough to buy solar panels in California will be more sustainable and avoid power outages, there are communities of less fortunate families that cannot afford to install them. Over 51,000 people on food assistance and 300,000 people on Medi-Cal fell victim to power outages, according to California’s Department of Social Services. These lower-income people have more to lose than their wealthier counterparts. While the wealthy may see power outages as minor disruptions, people of lower-income would have to adjust the way they live their lives, and these consequences could stretch out further than just the few days that the power would go out. One man even died because his CPAP machine stopped right after the power went out. Those living under the poverty line may not always be able to go to the next town to get medical treatment, and days without power can mean a loss of grocery trips that those living paycheck to paycheck may not always have the resources to replenish.

Thankfully, there is a simple solution that can help the state decrease its environmental footprint, reach its 2045 energy goal, and make sure that impoverished people affected by power outages do not have their problems compounded by a loss of food and/or medical resources. The first idea for a solution to this would be public investment into backup generators for medical centers and lower-income communities, but these tend to be primarily powered by gasoline or diesel, which are not that sustainable. A more sustainable alternative is public investment into solar power, whether that be on a large scale grid or just backups. If public funds were to be used, why not go solar? Despite the up-front cost of installations, the state of California would save more money in the long run and ensure that lower-income communities are protected from power outages sustainably. With Jerry Brown’s commitment of $800 million for “clean energy technologies”, Gavin Newsom can implement and supplement these funds in a way that would help lower-income communities gain protection from these outages.

California is a unique state, with extremely wealthy areas and impoverished areas being almost side by side. Power outages do not discriminate by wealth, but their effects do. Thankfully, there are similar solutions that can be implemented for any income class. With Bay Area homeowners getting tax incentives and cutting electricity costs in the long run, and public investment helping to contribute to California’s 2045 energy goals, the state stands to benefit from going solar to prevent any further consequences of blackouts. Sustainability and financial security do not have to be as far apart as we think they are.



Sustainability & Tech Enthusiast

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