February 7, 2014

In the Dark, Again and Again

By Lewis Milford

If we’re going to deal with increasingly severe climate-related power outages and are going to make our communities more resilient, we in the environmental community have to change the kinds of technologies we propose to solve the problem. Investing in the same old stuff – simply more energy efficiency and solar without energy storage – is not a climate resilient solution.

This past week, more than 1 million people lost power due to the snow and ice storms that hit the Northeast; and more storms are on the way. This last storm caused more people to lose power than any severe weather event since Hurricane Sandy, when over 8 million people were left in the dark. Important critical facilities like hospitals had to run on backup generators.

What this should tell us is that we haven’t learned enough from Hurricane Sandy. Storms happen. Trees go down, and the utilities can’t provide power. It’s the same old same old.

At the same time, many people have applauded the work that cities are doing to address climate change. A recent report from Bloomberg C40 Cities group noted the climate solutions adopted by cities. They are laudable: more energy efficiency, more solar, and other clean energy technologies.

But these solutions alone do not increase energy resiliency.  Reducing building energy use through efficiency or installing solar panels on buildings does not enable those buildings or the surrounding communities to bounce back and recover in the face of severe weather events and the crippling power outages that they bring. Without power, communities are brought to their knees.

This is most important for critical facilities that serve the public. Hospitals, fire stations, shelters, nursing homes, public housing and other places where the public looks for protection need critical loads up and running during emergencies. It is the basic duty of government to protect people from harm, and that means keeping the power on during disasters.

But keeping the power on requires more than just energy efficiency and traditional solar power.

Many people do not realize that solar electric systems don’t work during a power outage; unless the panels are hooked up to a battery and configured to island from the grid during an outage, they are useless in severe weather. The combination of solar with battery storage is a new technology approach that is power resilient and, with the use of new business models, can be cost-effective as well. But without storage, you just have an expensive power system on your roof that does not work when you might need it the most.

It is not resilient.

Neither is energy efficiency power resilient. It is good to reduce energy bills and environmental emissions. While that might reduce demand on the energy grid, it does nothing in the face of power outages for the individual customer sitting in the dark. Efficiency does not keep the lights on or the elevator running when the grid goes down.

It is not resilient.

Power outages cause harm to the most vulnerable populations. We have learned from recent extreme weather events that a community without dependable and reliable power is a community at risk. The consequences of losing power are stark, especially for low-income residents, the elderly, and disabled, who have a much harder time recovering from lost time at work, lack of access to emergency services, or who can’t get out of their buildings because elevators aren’t working.  (See “Court Finds NYC Disabled Not Adequately Protected After Sandy; Disaster Planning Must Include Vulnerable Populations.”)

So what is needed to address climate risks from severe weather are energy technologies like solar and energy storage that will run when the utility power does not.  And we need them to power our critical facilities to protect our most vulnerable populations. It is that simple.

For these facilities, cities need to adopt more resilient power solutions like solar with energy storage or fuel cells or combined heat and power systems that generate electricity during severe power outages.  These clean energy sources work before, during, and after power outages, which is what they are designed to do. (See “Solar Storage: The New Resilient Clean Energy Technology.”)

There are excellent new examples of states moving forward on resilient power solutions in the Northeast. They understand the need for these new solutions and know that what we currently have in place doesn’t work. In the last few months, these states have committed over $135 million in new power resilient solutions like solar storage, smart grids, and combined heat and power systems. They know new technology strategies are urgently needed.

These proven clean energy technologies can be both climate mitigation and adaptation:  they are good climate mitigation solutions because they reduce harmful emissions – and are also climate adaptation strategies because they can keep our homes and business powered when the grid goes down.

The city planners and the environmental community and their supporters need to catch up with the innovation occurring at the state level. They should look seriously at these new ways to address resilient power problems.

Calling energy solutions “resilient” when they don’t work during power outages leaves us in the dark again.

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