Power Outages and De-Energization Can Be Deadly to People with Disabilities

By Richard Skaff, Executive Director of Designing Accessible Communities

Innovative technology for electricity can mean the difference between life and death for people with disabilities. Ways to ensure more reliable sources of electricity, such as solar and battery backup, should be part of the dialogue at this week’s Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit in Sacramento.

The agenda is devoted to the use of high-tech measures, such as big data and artificial intelligence, to predict wildfires. These are exciting tools that could eventually reduce wildfires in California. But those tools only go so far to protect “us.” Nobody is discussing the immediate and dire challenge of supporting California’s vulnerable population of seniors and people with disabilities—many of whom may be hurt or worse when our electricity doesn’t work.

As California grapples with the devastation left by recent wildfires, de-energization has emerged as PG&E’s main solution to avoid their power lines sparking fires. This is a grave concern for the millions of Californians living with a disability, as well as the more than 8 million seniors in the state. For us, access to continuous and uninterrupted electricity is a matter of life and death.

At a community workshop in Santa Rosa, a PG&E representative warned that a public safety power shutoff could occur, at a minimum, once or twice a year within PG&E’s service area. Attendees were told that in most cases, PG&E expects to restore power within 24 hours, but outages could last two to five days. The outage may continue even longer in some cases because once the high wind/low humidity event has ended, PG&E staff must visually check every mile of de-energized power line before electrifying them to assure none are damaged. PG&E also says they will try to provide a 48-hour notice to area residents but may have to immediately de-energize in some situations.

Even 24 hours without electricity poses a great risk to people who rely on electrically operated life- saving medical equipment. This includes the thousands of Californians who rely on respiratory equipment and dialysis machines, or who need to refrigerate critical medicines like insulin. On a very hot or very cold day, the loss of air conditioning or heating (both systems that require electricity to operate) puts vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities at risk of death. Even simple actions, like opening a garage door, become an impossible task for many within this population during a wildfire, flood, or utility de-energization event, because they may not be able to manually open their garage door. That task may be the difference between life and death for someone with physical limitations.

When a person with a disability who uses a breathing machine or other electricity-dependent medical device doesn’t have access to power, they are put at risk. When PG&E determines an area it serves must be immediately de-energized but is unable to warn residents and visitors in the area, it could mean a life threatening situation for this vulnerable population.

We need innovative energy solutions in the home and at healthcare facilities that support people with disabilities and address these power issues.

One simple and effective innovation is already available: Home solar systems with individual backup batteries that can be connected to the grid. Solar and batteries are an immediate and important part of the solution to help provide continuous or backup power during planned or unplanned outages.

But existing programs and policies do not enable the immediate deployment of these options for California’s vulnerable population. Policymakers must recognize this deficiency and work with regulatory agencies, utility companies and other energy providers to encourage the installation of solar and energy storage for backup power.

We need resources dedicated to help this community that is the most vulnerable during a power outage. Here are a few steps that make a big impact:

  • Track, research, and analyze the impacts on vulnerable populations caused by man-made or natural disasters. For many of the state’s vulnerable population, utility de-energization is considered a man-made disaster!
  • Develop tools to reduce risks of power outages, such as solar and storage.
  • Prioritize the deployment of local clean energy resources among vulnerable populations in fire hazard zones, as well as in rural areas throughout the state.
  • Target solar and storage incentives to medical baseline customers, other customers with disabilities, and the frail elderly.
  • Significantly increase the medical baseline allowance to enable customers to cover the costs of tools for energy security, management and savings. The Solar Bill of Rights (Senate Bill 288), introduced this February, is an important step. It would protect the right of consumers to own solar systems and more importantly for seniors and people with disabilities, batteries that could store enough electricity to save lives during a power outage. Congress must pass this legislation. The technology industry, academic researchers, utilities, and government and consumers must look at ways to help this defenseless community. We must develop acceptable mitigation measures to protect the lives and health of seniors and people with disabilities. I’ve never felt more passionate about the importance of solar power as the right solution than after seeing my friends in the community suffer because of the lack of electricity. California must incorporate solar and storage to keep the power on for our state’s most vulnerable citizens.
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