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Weathering climate change [Commentary]

So, how about this weather? This question is often just small talk, but conversation about the recent weather has not been simple idle chatter. While Baltimore was bundled up against the frigid "polar vortex," Alaska saw record high temperatures. While Atlanta was virtually shut down in an unusual winter storm, California experienced a severe drought.

Scientists predict climate change will mean more extreme weather — longer droughts, bigger storms and more extreme hot and cold temperatures. While the effects of climate change will affect all communities, coastal urban areas like Baltimore are particularly vulnerable. Experts tell us that more frequent power outages, flooding and property damage are all part of our future.

We have two chief responsibilities to help ensure our city and our residents can "weather" the coming storm. First, we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to limit the activities that contribute to climate change — to help prevent the worst impacts. Second, we must prepare to adapt to the climate change effects we are already experiencing.

Investing now in clean, renewable energy gives us the opportunity to do both. Transitioning away from fossil fuels like coal and oil to renewable energy sources like solar power will reduce the harmful emissions that cause climate change, and Baltimore should do its part. These same renewable energy sources can be used to provide reliable power to residents during extreme weather events when we frequently see outages across our region.

The consequences of extreme weather in our area are real. A 14-day extreme heat event in the region in 2012 followed a period of severe thunderstorms that knocked out power to 3.8 million people. Twelve Marylanders died from excessive heat exposure.

A recent report by the nonprofit Abell Foundation details how Baltimore can use solar power and electricity storage to protect its residents and make the city more resilient in the face of more frequent severe weather. Strategies outlined in the report also give our most vulnerable low-income residents access to clean energy. According to the report, low-income areas often lack the income, savings, jobs and access to information to recover from extreme weather events.

The Clean Energy for Resilient Communities report is the first in-depth review of policies and finance strategies to use solar and energy storage to enhance community development and increase power resiliency. It provides examples of successful clean energy programs in low-income communities across the country.

These include the Whittier Affordable Housing Project in Denver, which utilized a solar financing model that combined private equity funding and utility rebates with a low-income job-training program. Another example is the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation in Chicago, which outfitted multifamily buildings with energy efficient heating units and solar panels that supply power to common areas.

The report focuses on increasing resiliency and preventing an "electricity divide" where only the wealthy have access to the benefits of clean and reliable energy. "Without dependable power," the report notes, "a community can be brought to its knees, and the most vulnerable will suffer the most."

The report offers a call to action for equitable access to solar electricity, and it recommends enacting community-focused legislation to expand the use of solar electricity in Maryland. Unlike many private homeowners, many renters and residents of multifamily buildings do not have the option to install their own solar systems.

A community program to generate renewable energy allows electricity customers to participate in a shared renewable-energy generation system. The energy is transmitted to the electricity grid, and participants receive credit on their utility bills. This creates opportunities for all Marylanders to benefit from renewable energy, and community solar projects could be located on schools, senior centers or other common buildings. We have a perfect opportunity now as plans are underway to build or rebuild dozens of new schools in Baltimore City.

Ten other states already have shared renewable energy programs in place — Maryland should join them. Fortunately, the General Assembly is considering legislation (Senate Bill 786/House Bill 1192 this year to do just that. The legislation would establish a two-year pilot program for the development of Community Renewable Energy Generating Systems.

Talking about the weather usually includes the forecast, and now is the ideal time for Baltimore to forecast its clean energy future. We must seize this opportunity to generate clean energy in our communities to increase efficiency, reliability and safety, especially for our low-income communities.

Cheryl Casciani is chair of the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability and the director of neighborhood sustainability at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Her email is ccasciani@bcf.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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