How States Can Make Energy Storage Work for Communities

December 13, 2019 | 11:19 am
US Department of Energy
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

It’s that time of year again. No, not the ugly sweater holiday party, or my favorite holiday movie (“Twenty-five THOUSAND imported Italian twinkle lights!”). I’m especially not talking about inevitably getting accosted by that distant relative that wants to argue about climate change (because, hey, Mars is warming and windmills kill birds)—although at least this year we have a new response: OK, Boomer.

No, friends, what I’m talking about is the preparation underway around the country in advance of state legislatures that will reconvene after the new year. Now is the time when many policymakers begin to draft new bills they plan to introduce, and when many advocates work to influence their choices.

To inform that process, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) just released a new policy brief, How to ensure energy storage policies are equitable, which offers a policy roadmap for clean energy champions to design ways to stimulate greater deployment of energy storage—in ways that put the needs and interests of communities first.

What is the opportunity?

Policymakers are beginning to see the potential for energy storage to help achieve ambitious clean energy goals to address climate change. Energy storage offers the potential to store energy and use it when it’s needed most. Because the electricity grid must constantly match the supply of electricity to the demand for electricity, the potential for widespread adoption of energy storage would offer flexibility in operating the grid—and the cost of one type of storage technology, lithium-ion batteries is falling fast.

Storage can score multiple wins, including reductions in climate-warming emissions, flexibility in grid operations and other reliability services, improvement in public health and air quality, community resilience, and reduction in expensive demand charges. The imminent rapid growth in battery storage represents an opportunity to incorporate equity into policy design at the outset, prioritizing storage applications that directly benefit communities.

UCS held a small expert convening in March 2018 to develop a set of recommendations on federal priorities for energy storage research, development, and deployment (RD&D). But it’s not just a question of research and whiz-bang technology (though innovation is critical to solving the climate problem)—it’s also of question of how to get more projects built. In that spirit, UCS convened a diverse group of stakeholders in December 2018 to discuss policies that drive energy storage deployment, but participants asked a different question: how can we deploy energy storage so that it puts the needs and interests of communities first? These discussions led to a set of consensus principles for energy storage that nearly all stakeholder attendees supported.

Photo: Wikimedia

Our new policy brief takes those principles several layers deeper, outlining specific considerations and recommendations that policymakers—both legislators and regulators—should incorporate when designing policies for energy storage and prioritizing underserved communities. And by “underserved,” we explicitly discuss the needs of frontline communities (those that are hit hardest and worst by climate change impacts), fenceline communities (those that bear the brunt of the health impacts from air pollution from power plants and industrial facilities), and fossil dependent communities (those that are hard hit by plant closures that lead to job losses and economic harm). With proper design, energy storage can be deployed in ways that help address the concerns of—and drive benefits to—these often-disparate communities.

What states are doing

The policy brief outlines different mechanisms that states have used to spur deployment—things like procurement targets or goals, financial incentives like tax credits or grants, and so on—and it calls out specific ways in which these policies can be used to prioritize investments in underserved communities. In practice, many states have combined one or more policy instruments to spur storage development.

With few exceptions, mostly notably California and New York, most state policymakers have not yet given enough thought to the equity implications of energy storage policies, or to clean energy deployment more broadly. California has recently made changes to its program designed to stimulate adoption of behind-the-meter storage in low-income communities. New York adopted bold climate and clean energy goals and specified investments in underserved communities, but implementation will be critical to achieving stated goals. The policy brief dives into some of the details about how these two leader states are grappling with challenges in deploying energy storage and achieving equitable outcomes. Other states like Massachusetts and Maryland are experimenting with smaller scale efforts to drive storage deployment in underserved communities.


Energy storage has the potential to drive direct benefits to underserved communities, but these outcomes will not happen automatically. The policy brief explores some examples of what states have done well (and not so well) in the past and offers ways for state policymakers to beef up their commitments both to energy storage and to investing in underserved communities.

We found that while policies that bring storage into communities can reduce local air pollution, demand charges, and outages, all of these benefits depend on how and where storage is deployed. This means that policymakers should therefore carefully consider the intended drivers and outcomes of greater storage deployment. By combining different policy mechanisms (including carve-outs, incentives, and financial mechanisms) policymakers can spur development of energy storage in underserved communities, but they should ensure that these policies are aligned with broader clean energy goals and programs. Check out the full list of recommendations, and the interview I did in our Ask a Scientist column.

Know of a state where policy might be moving on energy storage? Or a lawmaker who might be interested in the potential for storage to improve people’s lives? Let us know in the comments, or better yet, leverage your relationships with them and please share this resource!