Power Outages and Natural Disasters: Which Ones are Avoidable?

Author: Valerie Stori, Clean Energy Group | Project: Resilient Power Project

A downed electrical pole after hurricane Sandy

Another storm and millions lose power. It’s a familiar story, in this era of more severe and unusual weather events.

But while natural disasters can’t be prevented, the power outages that follow them can be, with smarter use of more modern technology.

Nearly three days after the unusually early snowstorm in the Northeast that brought over two feet of snow, three million people are still without electricity. Governors in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have declared a state of emergency. Connecticut’s extensive power outages broke the record set by Hurricane Irene this past August.  On Monday, October 31st, 764,000 were still without power and 20% of the state’s cell towers were down.

Powerful storms routinely disrupt electric transmission lines, occasionally destroy transportation infrastructure, pose a threat to nuclear reactors, and disrupt coal and natural gas infrastructure. Facilities such as hospitals, 911 call centers, and supermarkets need reliable electric generation to provide critical support in emergency situations. Homes and businesses are left without water, cooling and heating, and communication. The failure to install reliable backup power systems at critical facilities represents a serious weakness in emergency response infrastructure.

Unfortunately, little has been done to update many of our nation’s most critical facilities’ backup technologies.  Our nation’s backup power systems rely mainly on 19th century technologies, namely diesel generators.

Conventional diesel generators often lie dormant for long periods of time, causing them to be more susceptible to mechanical failure. Moreover, these emergency generators rely on fuel—and as we’ve experienced in recent storms, fuel cannot be pumped when a gas station loses electricity or when snowstorms block roadways.  A 2003 New York City blackout report stated that a small percentage of emergency generators ceased to operate, either from failing to initiate power generation, mechanical failure, or from exhausting their fuel supply.  Just two months ago, Connecticut reported that 30% of its gas stations were without power following Hurricane Irene. The stations had gas, but ironically, not the power to pump it.

While there is no source of electricity that is completely immune from natural disasters, clean energy technologies such as fuel cells, if properly designed, can be more reliable and safer. Smaller, on-site, distributed generation, clean energy technologies produce power directly at the source and can operate independently when the grid fails or when fuel cannot be delivered.  While these technologies are not fail-safe, they can provide more reliable power and run at full capacity to power critical electrical loads.

There are many options for backup power in electrical outages; each system is different in its ability to generate power.  Whether for your home or commercial application, traditional backup power is provided through battery systems or combustion-based generators. The main challenge for all conventional backup power technologies is providing sufficient power for an extended period. Solar (PV) with battery backup or fuel cells can provide long-term reliable clean electricity.  A PV system is the more affordable option for home owners, while fuel cells are a more cost-effective alternative for larger-scale applications.

When integrated with a battery energy storage system, PVs can provide continuous electricity supply on cloudy days or at night.  Similarly, PV systems can power critical infrastructure in remote locations.  In 2010, Xcel Energy provided funding to the West Central Telephone Association for remote PV telecommunication power kits.

Fuel cells, in particular, are well-suited for critical applications. Most backup power systems address applications requiring less than 5 kW.  At this range, battery-powered generators can provide full power for 15 minutes. Fuel cells operate at much higher efficiencies (40%-50% for electric conversion; 80% for CHP) than coal-based technologies (operating at 30-35% electrical efficiency), enabling fuel cells to provide power longer than conventional generators.

Critical infrastructure applications for fuel cell technology include a recent installation at Whole Foods Market in Glastonbury, CT.  While much of the surrounding area lost power during Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, a backup generator and a fuel cell kept the store’s coolers running and enabled the store to reopen its doors after both storms, providing much needed food and water to area residents.  Similarly, in September’s California blackout, Albertson’s market continued to operate by a natural-gas powered fuel cell. Other critical energy fuel cell installations include the largest in the nation—Verizon’s 911 call center in Long Island, which operates as a grid-independent first responder station.

Despite these encouraging investments and critical application installations, state and federal governments have been slow to enact public policy requiring more reliable systems.

State legislatures should expand power protection to require the immediate installation of newer, reliable clean power technologies in critical facilities.  States and the federal government can lead the way by installing on-site clean energy generation systems at public buildings, emergency shelters, first responder stations, and other critical infrastructure.  Moreover, states should be providing long-term incentives to promote and support renewable energy installations in homes and at critical facilities. (The Clean Energy States Alliance recently published a compendium of short briefing papers for policy makers covering the use of fuel cells in critical power applications and in supermarkets, among other topics; read it here.)

Until incentives and policies support the widespread use of reliable on-site clean energy technologies, emergency response systems will remain vulnerable to failure and public safety will continue to be threatened by natural disasters. Federal and state governments must take steps to stronger, more reliable emergency management and homeland security.  Clean energy is a critical step in reliable power in emergency situations.