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December 21, 2021

Closing the equity gap: Clean Energy Group is bringing grid resilience and social benefits to the nation’s underserved communities

By Elana Knopp, Senior Content Writer

In this last of a two-part series, Edison Energy sat down with Seth Mullendore, Vice President of Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization working to accelerate an equitable and inclusive transition to a resilient, sustainable clean energy future. Mullendore, who will take the helm of CEG as its new President and Executive Director on January 1st, currently oversees projects ranging from customer-sited solar and battery storage to the replacement of power plants with clean technologies. He works with policymakers, project developers, industry, advocates, and community and environmental justice groups to advance clean energy policies and projects, with a focus on achieving greater access to solar and battery storage technologies for under-resourced communities. 

Part II

Clean Energy Group (CEG), a national nonprofit focused on the equitable expansion of clean energy, recently announced that it has awarded more than $1 million in grants to community-serving organizations advancing solar PV paired with battery storage to benefit frontline communities.

The grants have supported the work of 86 affordable housing and nonprofit community organizations, representing 93 solar+storage projects across 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. To date, the grant awards have resulted in the completion of 30 resilient solar+storage projects in low-income communities and communities of color, with more projects in the pipeline.

As of 2021, more than 50 percent of grant dollars awarded have gone to support the work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) organizations, a goal that CEG is committed to continue going forward.

The program has quickly spread to other states, says Mullendore.

“In the beginning, we went to California and the response we had was, ‘we have an earthquake every now and then but if that happens, we’ve got bigger problems, we’re not worried about power,’” Mullendore said. “Fast forward to annual wildfires and utilities shutting down power to millions of people and we have a lot of interest now all up and down the West Coast. We’ve had a lot of interest from the Pacific Northwest. They realized they can’t depend on fossil fuels if a major earthquake happens along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.”

When that happens, said Mullendore, more remote communities must prepare to be without power for weeks or months since they are unable to rely on backup generators.

“That is, of course, something that we saw in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria where people didn’t have reliable access to diesel fuel,” he said. “Even if they did, generators failed because they were not designed to operate for weeks on end to provide power.”

That same year, hurricanes Harvey and Irma inundated the Southeast, driving a greater push for resilient power solutions like solar+storage. Today, the program has spread to the Midwest, as well as to Texas, particularly in the wake of widespread outages resulting from Winter Storm Uri.

“There’s pretty much no area of the country that hasn’t begun to recognize the importance of local energy resilience,” Mullendore said. “The pandemic was a huge spur for that as well when people started spending their time in different places and realized that if they lose power, they lose access to everything. Many people are stuck at home and they’re thinking more about energy resilience. It’s expanded a ton over the last two years and for the first time is really getting a lot of attention at the federal level as well. We’re hoping that something comes out of all the recent movements in different federal packages hopefully going through so that we get more support for these types of projects.”

In January, President Biden signed an Executive Order to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, creating a government-wide “Justice40 Initiative” that aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

“There are still a lot of question marks around what that means, but that’s encouraging,” Mullendore said. “We’ve seen some of this commitment starting to come through with the Department of Energy and the National Labs, which are beginning to pursue equity-focused work around energy storage specifically. As far as the Reconciliation package goes, I haven’t seen anything that directly supports these projects, but the big thing that sounds like it’s going to stand is an extension of the tax credits which is good in general for clean energy development and energy storage. Maybe there will be a standalone storage tax credit.”

The bipartisan Energy Storage Tax Incentive and Deployment Act makes the ITC available for stand-alone energy storage systems. In addition to putting storage on a level playing field with other energy technologies, an ITC will accelerate the growth of jobs and investment in the American energy storage industry, contributing to economic recovery while increasing power system resilience and accelerating decarbonization.

“Potentially even bigger than extending the tax credit for our work is direct payment, so if you’re a non-taxable entity, you can directly take advantage of tax credits,” Mullendore said. “Almost everyone we work with is a nonprofit and by the time you get through either working with a third party or establishing a special purpose entity that can take advantage of the tax credits for a nonprofit, you lose so much of the credit that at least half of it is gone. Being able to directly access those benefits would be such a gamechanger for our work and would make so many more projects economically viable.”

In the Northeast, CEG has been working on implementing programs that compensate energy storage for its ability to reduce peak demand on the grid. Several states including Massachusetts and Connecticut have adopted these programs.

“The energy storage programs now being deployed in the Northeast go much further in closing equity gaps than other programs we’ve seen,” Mullendore said. “CEG is trying to scale up, so we are fundraising and trying to stretch the money as far as we can so that we can get our technical assistance program to the level it needs to be to meet demand.”

Ultimately, says Mullendore, CEG’s goal is to make resilient solar+storage a replicable solution everywhere for everyone. But to realize that goal, the U.S. must implement enabling programs that compensate energy storage both for the grid resilience and social benefits it can provide.

“That could close the gap and that might be where the federal government steps in to provide incentives to compensate these systems capable of providing real benefits to communities across the nation. We’re hoping the federal government will come through on that,” he said.

Click here to read the first part of our conversation with Seth Mullendore.

Explore additional conversations with leading experts from across the industry in our Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series.