Green energy investments are helping rural health care

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E. Benjamin Money is the senior vice president for population health at the National Association of Community Health Centers. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

When you think of the Biden administration’s climate investments, you may imagine subsidies for Tesla drivers in affluent coastal cities. But those investments are helping Americans at all income levels, in both small towns and urban areas. One example: The Biden administration is bringing clean, resilient solar power to federally funded health centers across the nation.

As a senior vice president at the National Association of Community Health Centers, I can vouch for the importance of this work. The 1,400 health centers comprise a vital safety net, serving patients regardless of their ability to pay. Most of the centers’ 31.5 million patients are people with low incomes; many live in remote areas where other healthcare options are lacking.

Those patients are especially vulnerable when disasters or power outages shut down their local health center. And both are increasingly common: In 2023, the United States saw a record-breaking 28 climate-related disasters with damages topping $1 billion each. Extreme weather, along with chronically underfunded utility grids, have caused a dramatic increase in power outages in recent years.

During a power outage, lifesaving medicines go bad, staff can’t access electronic health records and essential medical equipment — such as x-ray machines and ventilators — shuts down.

That’s what happened in 2021 when Hurricane Ida knocked out power lines across Louisiana. At CrescentCare Community Health Center in New Orleans, a diesel backup generator failed, spoiling refrigerated vaccines and rendering medical equipment useless. Doctors were unable to care for patients when they needed it most.

But CrescentCare is better prepared for the next natural disaster. Thanks, in part, to generous new tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, CrescentCare is installing solar panels with a battery backup (solar plus storage) that will keep the power flowing even when the grid goes down.

CrescentCare will soon be joined by many others. Last month, the Department of Energy announced $57 million in funding for the CHARGE Partnership, which will install these panels at up to 175 clinics across the rural southeast — in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

In addition to ensuring access to care in a storm-prone region, the CHARGE Partnership anticipates that solar plus storage will enable the health centers to save up to $45 million in energy costs. The clinics will also reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — lowering the risk of future climate disasters.

We know that solar plus storage is a game changer for community health centers. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, shutting down many of the island’s health centers. Nearly 3,000 people died. Afterward, Direct Relief installed solar plus storage at eight community health centers. When a fire took down the island’s power grid in 2022, those health centers were able to continue operating at full capacity.

In our evermore polarized nation, it’s easy to lose sight of our common interests. But we all need to be able to access healthcare, especially when the power grid goes down. The Biden administration’s investments in clean, resilient solar energy are not just for the privileged few. They could be keeping the lights on at a clinic near you.