COVID, Climate and Quakes

How will smart energy micro-grids, electric (and automated) vehicles, and community solar shape a more sustainable, healthier and resilient world?

On December 1, “COVID, Climate and Quakes” – the final event in OEC’s 25th annual Forum for Business and Environment speaker series – featured Portland-based futurist Steve Brown, who explored how emerging clean technology trends promise to make our world more sustainable and resilient, while reshaping our economy and social lives.

Watch the full event here:

A panel of experts in community development, emergency management and urban design research, expanded the conversation by exploring how new technologies can be implemented in socially equitable ways that are community-centered and enable neighborhoods hit first and worst by climate change, COVID or quake impacts to recover faster.

In a time when public resources are limited, investing in key emerging technologies can provide important crosscutting benefits in addressing all of these threats. For example, residential and community solar systems, paired with advanced battery storage technology and energy micro-grids, deliver clean, affordable energy and are less vulnerable to large-scale outages after earthquakes or other natural disasters.

However, historic and current social inequities mean that these new technologies are frequently directed, at least initially, to more affluent and white communities – widening the gap even further in times of crisis. Targeted investments, incentives and rebates are some tools policymakers can use to help steer deployment of new technology in more equitable ways.

Ernesto Fonseca, CEO of Hacienda CDC, an affordable housing developer, described how they marry new technology and tradition to create community spaces that reflect community cultures and empower residents to learn and be part of new solutions. For example, siting solar installations in public areas helps to spread ideas and engage community members in new conversations.

Jonna Papaefthimiou, Planning, Policy and Community Programs Manager at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, added that Portland is promoting a neighborhood preparedness approach to quake resilience and investing in resilient community hubs, like the East Portland Community Center. Solar and battery storage systems will facilitate mutual aid efforts, including a community kitchen, and places for neighbors to charge their phones and contact family in times of emergencies and natural disasters.

In some cases, technologies are being used to directly advance our understanding of social inequities. Research by Vivek Shandas, Professor of Urban Studies and research director for PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, used heat sensor systems on cars to demonstrate that “heat islands” are disproportionately populated by low-income communities and people of color due to racist housing policies that stretch back more than a century.

As technology trends speed forward faster than policy or community investments, more needs to be done to ensure that new technologies benefit all Oregonians. Our elected officials and government agency leaders will have to deepen their commitment to social equity to ensure that private sector development of more sustainable technology is matched by laws, tax incentives and other programs that make it widely accessible and affordable.

We can build the communities we want to be by thinking about equity-centered design from our rooftops to the sidewalks – “Design with a purpose,” as Ernesto and the Hacienda CDC team do.


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