The tornadoes in the South and Midwest this spring, the recent unprecedented fires in the Southwest and the floods across the country once again showed how fragile our electric grid is and how dependent we are on it for our basic services. After the tornadoes in the South millions of homes and businesses were without electric power- transmission lines were down and the Tennessee Valley Authority shut down three nuclear reactors when power was cut to run the plants cooling system. The Arizona fire threatened major transmission wires that supply power to hundreds of thousands of people- damage to these wires would have meant rolling black out across the Southwest and Texas.
Power outages have serious impacts beyond individual inconveniences – the loss of electricity from severe weather disrupts emergency and communications systems of all kinds — 911 call centers, cell phone service, as well as at shelters, police stations, hospitals and laboratories.
After the Alabama tornadoes, there were also reports of major gas shortages- not because stations couldn’t get gas but because they didn’t have power to pump the gas.
Right now, most electrical power comes from large central plants –nuclear, coal, oil or gas–delivered through miles of lines and above-ground poles. Tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding and other disasters can easily interrupt these vulnerable distribution and transmission networks, as happened across the South.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Distributed renewable energy systems can often withstand severe weather events and continue to operate when the grid is down- systems like solar panels and fuel cells. As far back as 1999, NREL recommended the widespread use of solar for emergency backup power, including gas stations.
Japan has been using solar in gas stations as backup for emergencies since the mid 1990s.
After a series of hard hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005, when many communities were without power – and gas and supermarkets- for weeks. (Federal and state agencies spent millions distributing water and ice to residents.) Florida passed a law requiring gas stations to have backup power for the pumps and the cash registers.
It appears Alabama does not have a similar law.
Disaster relief experts have written about these solutions for years, but officials have been slow to act. Despite numerous examples of distributed renewable systems saving the day (and centralized conventional energy failing massively), when it comes to existing, central generation energy systems with their long lines, poles and transformers, most propose simply to rebuild them and hope for the best next time.
Hoping against Mother Nature is not a wise energy protection strategy. A more creative approach should be on the table: energy technologies that are smaller in scale, modern, cleaner and more reliable to power critical electrical needs.
Because this is about public safety and the protection of life, government should step in forcefully with a solution. After all these tragedies, it’s about time that federal and state government require these resilient, smaller technologies for key public safety power needs.
Some states are beginning to see these technologies as a basic foundation for emergency management and public safety. The NYPD Central Park Police Station is powered by an on-site fuel cell that kept the lights on during the 2003 blackout. A fuel cell at the Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut provides emergency power for some operating rooms. On-site renewable energy projects are in place at schools that serve as emergency shelters. The Governor’s residence in Pennsylvania uses photovoltaic for emergency backup power for critical state government communications. Other states have these technologies at mobile emergency command centers and wastewater treatment facilities.
But these small examples are not enough. Most federal and state government buildings have no such additional emergency power protection.
These new mandates can be tailored and flexible. They would cover only certain emergency power needs in critical facilities such as communications, information systems and emergency lighting, not entire buildings. They also should provide incentives for the private sector to increase power security in mission critical buildings like laboratories and hospitals. Homeowners too deserve financial support. New markets for these technologies could develop from these requirements, as well as new jobs for installers and others to maintain them.
The human and economic costs of depending solely on the energy status quo during times of natural emergencies are now painfully unacceptable. In the future, we should not rely on the same old energy systems that continue to fail when we need them most.
If states and the federal government take these necessary steps, stronger emergency management and homeland security with more resilient, cleaner energy might be one of the few good things to come out of these recurring natural tragedies.