Climate Dispatches: Leveraging health, energy to build healthy, resilient, equitable community | SierraSun.com
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Climate Dispatches: Leveraging health, energy to build healthy, resilient, equitable community

Courtney Henderson
Guest columnist

The purpose of this ongoing series of “Climate Dispatches” is to share with our neighbors how climate change affects our community and how we can all make a meaningful difference.

The combined effects of climate change and the lack of forest health management practices over decades threaten to impact our energy infrastructure and community health like never before.

This year’s wildfire season has been the most destructive ever recorded in California’s history, burning more than three million acres, with many of these fires still burning.

In Truckee, we are feeling the impacts: reduced air quality, trail closures, and the threat of evacuation.

Compounding the tragic loss of land, buildings, and lives, there are severe health and energy consequences to these natural disasters. Air quality has diminished significantly throughout much of California this summer and in prior years; many areas are experiencing air quality indices (AQIs) in far excess of 200, a level classified as “very unhealthy” by the World Air Quality Index project.

Negative associations between wildfire smoke and health outcomes, particularly general respiratory health, asthma exacerbations, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are well-documented. Public health officials have also warned about the risks associated with wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extreme heat can cause heat stress and heat stroke, exacerbating heart failure and kidney disease.

Energy infrastructures, like power lines, are left vulnerable in the face of fires; it can take weeks and sometimes months for utilities to safely restore power in fire-impacted communities. The threat of wildfires can also lead to preemptive safety black outs; in July 2019, California’s largest electric utility, PG&E, cut power to tens of thousands of customers due to extreme fire risk. NV Energy, which supplies distribution to Truckee, stated that it, too, might shut off power for public safety in order to reduce fire risks.

We have to look beyond the generation and movement of energy to understand the building blocks of resiliency. We must think of resiliency as the daily act of preparing our community to withstand increasing threats to our wellbeing. As we work to identify a framework for resiliency for our community in Truckee, we need to broaden our view.

The field of public health offers some answers. A public health framework defines resiliency as “processes and skills that result in good individual and community health outcomes, in spite of negative events, serious threats, and hazards.” Public health also offers concepts that are useful for thinking about social change. For example, the idea of herd immunity emphasizes that the well-being and resiliency of one person or community is only as secure as the whole. Through this broadened lens, a resilience framework for our community should:

1. Underscore the ability of our community to overcome threats;

2. Emphasize the resilience of people (and not just the technologies that we rely upon); and

3. Focus on positive outcomes.

Adopting a public health framework and way of thinking foregrounds equity, cuts across economic, social, and environmental contexts, and requires that we operate under a goal of collective well-being and community health.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are models for building community resiliency around health and energy which could be adapted to the unique context and needs of our community. Some of these models include:

1. The California Energy Commission has developed a set of indicators related to clean energy access, investments, and resilience. The list was built upon research that exposed high levels of asthma-related emergency visits, electricity bills greater than $300 in low-income Census tracts in southern California, and the winter energy burden for low-income communities in Northern California.

2. The Resilient Power Project is a joint initiative of the Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute, focused on building resources in affordable housing, low-income communities, and disadvantaged communities. The Project aims to deploy solar combined with energy storage to “help power essential services during extended power outages and to reduce the economic burden of energy costs in vulnerable communities.”

1. The Maryland Energy Administration’s $5 million program to support community resiliency hubs, powered by solar and battery storage, aims to provide basic services in an emergency, such as heating and cooling, refrigeration for medicines and milk for nursing mothers, and charging for small devices like phones.

2. San Francisco’s Solar + Storage for Resiliency project aims to integrate solar and energy storage into the City’s emergence response plans. In addition to exploring the feasibility of solar plus storage installations throughout the city, the project developed resources and tools for other municipalities nationwide to do the same.

The hazards we face as a community today threaten our health, energy infrastructure, community, and families like never before. However, we also have great opportunity to integrate health and energy to build a more resilient, equitable Truckee.

Now is the time to double down on these efforts to support community health, resiliency, and equity as moral and business imperatives.

Courtney Henderson is a skier, mountain biker, public health and energy professional, wife, and mom. She serves on a Technical Advisory Committee for the Sierra Business Council and is a member of 100% Renewable Truckee.


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