Rebuilding After Sandy: Can We Do Better On Energy?

Over at Huffington Post my friend Bernard David asks an important question: As we rebuild after Sandy, what are we going to do different than before? Are we going to just rebuild what was there previously, or consciously decide to make changes that will reduce the impact of future natural disasters?

While the debate will continue about the degree to which Sandy was or wasn’t influenced by human-induced climate change, for the purpose of this discussion I join Roger Pielke, Jr and others in arguing that it doesn’t matter. There have always been storms as strong and stronger than Sandy hitting our eastern seaboard, and there will be more in the future. In addition to coastal storms, we will surely face earthquakes, blizzards, and other types of natural disasters. And as Roger says, “There are more people and more wealth in harm’s way”.

The important question how we respond to that reality.

Things We Can Change

Clearly we need to examine the design of our building and transportation infrastructure, looking at potential changes in zoning, design standards, building codes, and insurance. Each of these has policy components at various levels of government. These policy questions also raise important questions of personal freedoms and responsibility: Do we allow people and organizations to make risky decisions about what they build where? And to what extent does the rest of society pay to help mitigate those risks?

While I, in no way, mean to minimize the suffering, health impacts and economic woes that resulted from damage to buildings and transportation, I would argue that the failure of our energy infrastructure lies at the heart of the dramatic breadth and depth of Sandy’s impact. We need to seriously question why so many people were without power, and why that power was (or still is, in many cases) out for so long.

In order to appreciate how different things could have turned out, imagine the ideal energy scenario where no one had lost power from Sandy. The number of people impacted by the storm drops dramatically, and our ability to clean up and recover from the other impacts is massively improved. This scenario isn’t total fantasy: Andy Revkin highlights successes amidst the chaos at NYU and Co-op City using natural gas co-generators which produced both heat and electricity for these facilities.

We need to use the tragedy of Sandy as motivation for a major program to disaster-proof our energy infrastructure. A logical approach would have local and national components.

Local Energy Resilience Program

Every city has its own energy reality. The in-place infrastructure, the mix of sources, the possible threats, and the possibilities for backup and alternative energy are all unique. As a result, each city needs to do its own assessment and improvement plan. That’s not to say that cities and regions don’t share challenges and can’t learn from each other, but in the end the possibilities and responsibilities have to be locally owned.

Each city needs to understand the vulnerabilities of its current infrastructure, and plot a strategy for addressing these vulnerabilities through smarter processes, use of technologies and contingency plans. To start, every municipality should have real, public targets and goals: If disaster X happens, how many lose power, and how soon is it back on. Same for disaster Y, disaster Z, etc.

These targets then become the basis for an improvement plan. How much better can we make things a year form now? Three years from now? Twenty years from now? Some elements of these plans will be public works projects, but others will be process improvements, new elements of contracts with private utility companies, etc.

It is important that these targets be public, and that they be publicly evaluated after each disaster. If a NYC public goal had stated that power would be restored in lower Manhattan after a direct hit from a tropical storm in up to two weeks, would the public stand for that? Might this have caused improvements to be put into place before Sandy?

Finally, there is an economic element of this effort that goes beyond insurance. Increasingly companies understand their reliance on energy irregardless of their product or service, and a reliable supply of clean energy at a reasonable cost is a serious component of business location decisions. For example, talk to anyone who plans data centers, and you’ll understand that energy resilience is not an abstract concept.

National Energy Resilience Program

While the detailed plans lie at a local level, the federal government has two important roles to play: addressing extra-municipal infrastructure, and ongoing research and advanced technology development.

While cites need to take the lead on their own resiliency plans, some issues are outside the realm of any specific locality, so need federal attention. For example, the interstate power grid is a critical resource, so naturally any issues there cascade down to the local level.

Like the local resiliency programs, the core activity is to understand failure modes, set public targets for downtime in different scenarios, and lay out a roadmap for improving those targets. In this case the targets are a vital input to the local resiliency plans. For example, if the target downtime for long-distance grid power is 6 hours, a city should be factoring this into its own targets, and how to improve them over time with backup power and other techniques.

In addition to extra-municipal resiliency, the federal government has a significant opportunity to provide new, improved options to localities by supporting research and advanced technology development in support of resiliency. For example, is NYU’s natural gas-powered backup system a model for other organizations? How can that system be made more cost-effective and reliable? Are there even better ideas?

While many of DOE’s charters involve vague goals, this has the potential to be a focused, mission-driven activity of the same nature as DOD’s increasingly successful energy investments. In any large organization, projects with clear, measurable goals will always make more headway in the long-run compared to projects with vague, high-level goals.

A Closing Thought

While I’ve discussed the need to address energy resiliency from a local and federal government perspective, Sandy should be a wakeup call for every organization and household. NYU didn’t rely on solely on NYC for its energy supply, and some are going a step farther: The New Republic calls for moving the entire grid to an Internet-style, distributed energy system.

Fortunately the planning blueprint I’ve laid out earlier applies equally well down to the individual household level. Evaluate your vulnerabilities, set targets, and layout a roadmap for improving them.

If individuals and private organizations of all types put their own plans into place, that will naturally put pressure on cities and the federal government to have clear, public targets and plans for improvement.