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California Wildfires

A New Way for Health Centers to Keep the Lights On

A battery rebate program is designed to help low-income people living in high fire risk areas, and the critical organizations that serve them, navigate future public safety power shutoffs.

Power is essential for health centers, like Mendocino Community Health Center, pictured here. The health center lost power for several days last year due to wildfires and outages, but is taking part of new program to harness battery power to get through shutoffs in the future. (Photo courtesy of Mendocino Community Health Centers)
Power is essential for health centers, like Mendocino Community Health Center, pictured here. The health center lost power for several days last year due to wildfires and outages, but is taking part of new program to harness battery power to get through shutoffs in the future. (Photo courtesy of Mendocino Community Health Centers)

A fire in 2018 shut down two of Mendocino Community Health Clinic’s four locations.

In 2019, power shutoffs designed to deter another wildfire shut the Ukiah, California health center down again – this time, at all four locations, for four days.

“Being closed, and the impact of patients not getting care, and staff not being able to work, that’s a lot,” said Tiffany Williams, the Mendocino Community Health Clinic’s safety officer.

The Health Consequences of Public Safety Power Shutoffs

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In addition, the health center lost vaccines, which need to be kept in specialized refrigerators, during the power outages.

For a health center treating underserved patients on a shoestring margin, a power outage is serious. It means that patients go without visits or access to medication for days on end.

It also means that a health center goes without the revenue – Williams estimated that Mendocino Community Health Clinic’s locations see a total of about 600 patients per day – it needs to keep its doors open.

But public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events, during which an electrical company cuts the power to discourage wildfires from happening in a particular area during a hot or dry period, are part of California’s future landscape, said Nora Hawkins, a regulatory analyst for the California Public Utilities Commission’s energy division.

A New Solution

Then, through Direct Relief, Williams heard about a new state-sponsored rebate designed to help low-income residents living in fire-prone areas – and the critical facilities that serve them – during PSPS events.

Through an existing state project, the Self-Generation Incentive Program, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) already offers rebates for people and organizations interested in installing energy storage technology at their home or facility.

But a new category, called “Equity Resiliency,” is specifically targeted at communities that are “lower-income, medically vulnerable, and at-risk for fire,” as the CPUC’s website explains.

Through Equity Resiliency, about $613 million in state funds will be distributed through 2024 to provide batteries for free, or with some remaining installation costs, to people who are lower income, have a medical disadvantage, and either live in an area that’s especially vulnerable to fire or have experienced two PSPS events.

The batteries are also available to the organizations that serve vulnerable communities in high fire risk areas – like fire stations and health centers.

The Equity Resiliency rebate came out of “a recognition that we’re seeing increasing wildfire risk throughout the state due to climate change and people moving more into the urban-wildland interface,” Hawkins said. “And so there was a recognition that, as wildfire risk increases….it will probably be necessary to continue relying on these public safety power shutoff events, which of course can have pretty significant customer impacts.”

Spreading the Word

But while a number of health centers serving low-income populations living in high fire risk areas are eligible for the Equity Resiliency program, it’s not widely known among them, said Andrew MacCalla, Direct Relief’s vice president of emergency response.

“None of them know that it even exists,” he said.

That’s where Direct Relief comes in. The organization recently held a webinar to alert safety net providers to the program – and to offer to pay the 5% application fee due up front for facilities seeking a battery. About 40 of the organization’s partners have projects in the works so far, MacCalla said.

Mendocino Community Health Clinic, which is currently undergoing the review process, is one of them.

How It Works

Whether it’s a person who relies on a medical device or a health center that needs to keep its vaccines cold and its medical records online, an installation project is undertaken with a developer, who will determine how much electricity is needed to maintain total functioning – the “peak load” – and the capacity a battery needs to have.

A battery that’s fully funded by Equity Resiliency can maintain that load for between two and four hours. But should a health center pare down to its most essential functions – its “critical load” – the battery may hold out for hours longer, doing everything from powering exam chairs to – literally – keeping the lights on.

The Equity Resiliency program is funded by ratepayers who buy their electricity from California companies. These companies, in turn, will evaluate applications for batteries based on criteria determined by the CPUC.

It works as a rebate, which means that an organization is responsible for the up-front cost, although a developer may agree to take some of that on. Then 50% of the cost is reimbursed when the project is completed, and the remaining half is reimbursed over the next five years, provided the organization meets certain requirements regarding the charging and use of the battery.

Batteries aren’t just intended to be used as backup. They’re supposed to be charged and discharged daily.

“We’d hope to see a lot of batteries charging in the middle of the day when energy generation tends to be cheaper, because we have a lot of solar generating in California,” Hawkins said. “And then we’d want to see these batteries discharging during the evening ramp and peak period, where otherwise a lot of fossil fuel facilities that are more expensive and emit more greenhouse gases are coming online.”

This isn’t just meant to be good for vulnerable individuals and organizations. It’s meant to benefit the grid as well.

“We are very interested in helping customers achieve enhanced resiliency in light of these wildfire risks, but this is a larger program with additional purposes. So the goal for the battery is to be more than just providing backup power to critical loads,” Hawkins said.

There’s no shortage of interest. Hawkins said that the Equity Resiliency budget has had more than 4,200 applicants thus far.

“The idea of potentially being able to qualify for funding to cover the cost of the batteries is huge. Health centers use a lot of power, so it’s not just a small battery pack. They’re quite significant. And they do cost quite a bit of money,” Williams said.

Mendocino Community Health Clinic hopes to use the batteries to keep its door open to patients and its medications cold during future power shutoffs.

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