November 16, 2012

Sandy’s Power Outages: We Can, And Should, Do Better

By Lewis Milford

I’m looking in disbelief at images of Sandy’s destruction in New York and New Jersey. I grew up near the Jersey Shore, so this is personal. It’s bad up there: lines for rationed gasoline, homes and businesses destroyed, and millions of people still without electricity.

It’s that last point that really sticks with me. The United States can – and should – do better, and we have missed many opportunities to do so.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a New York Times op-ed about how power outages led to lost medical research at Columbia Medical School. Their diesel generators failed and years of research materials were destroyed. I called for tougher backup protections using more modern technologies. The same conventional backup system failures occurred after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and again after power failures at a hospital in Houston.

Last week, it was déjà vu all over again. With power out in lower Manhattan, generators failed at NYU Medical School. Nurses were forced to ventilate newborns as they climbed down 15 floors to evacuate critically vulnerable patients to other hospitals.

Outside of Manhattan, power outages are rampant thorough the tri-state region, shuttering police headquarters, fire stations, schools, homes, polling places, and gas stations – critical public facilities where power failures harm us all. While flooding caused many outages, downed trees over ancient aboveground power lines probably did the most damage. Our current system, with distribution power lines serving our homes and business, is a century old and continues to collapse with each new disaster.

Hurricane Sandy is a grim reminder that repeated failures over the past 15 years have not resulted in better protection from predictable power outages. From crisis to crisis, the loss of power has meant the loss of lives, resources, medical research, and patient protection; idle gas stations; catastrophic local and state economic impacts; and untold misery to millions of people. With more deliberate planning and upgrades to our energy infrastructure, these losses could be mitigated – or even avoided.

These are public emergencies that call for public policy responses. People on their own cannot be expected to fix this problem. After Katrina, I made a series of policy recommendations that were ignored. They are as relevant today as they were then, and I challenge policy makers to take them up today:


  • Require federal mission critical facilities to use clean energy technologies.
  • Require direct use of on-site clean energy technologies in reconstruction of critical public buildings.
  • Develop federal-state partnerships to fund installations and facilitate joint procurement.

State & Local

  • Investigate local opportunities to use on-site clean energy technologies at emergency shelters, first responder stations, and on other critical infrastructure sites.
  • Legislatures could require installation of on-site clean energy technologies at state mission critical facilities.
  • Create state incentives to support use of clean energy technologies at public facilities.
  • Establish incentives for the private sector to install new on-site clean energy protection at hospitals and university laboratories.

These recommendations were disregarded after Katrina, but maybe now – given the statements of Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg – public sentiment is changing. Moreover, those laws should require some form of technology innovation, so we move beyond our almost sole reliance on diesel generators that often fail, time and again. We need policies to encourage public and private facilities to do more to put new technologies like solar with batteries and fuel cells at customer locations, to create power onsite when the lines are down. Because the power lines will come down again, and the status quo is not working.

Creating resilient clean energy infrastructure for the 21st century is one of the most pressing financing challenges our time. Clean energy finance now needs to focus on capital markets and bond issuance. This will involve developing strong working relationships between energy fund managers and development finance professionals at the state and local government levels throughout the country. My organization recently launched the Clean Energy + Bond Finance Initiative (CE+BFI), a groundbreaking project that will get these critical partnerships going.

In 1888, a massive snowstorm blanketed New York City, stopping all commerce and gridlocking aboveground trains and trollies as power lines fell. The city stepped in and ordered that the power lines be buried. Within a few years, underground subway construction began as a response to preventing the damage from that kind of storm paralyzing the city once again. The governments acted and paid for the improvements, and New York City is a great city because of it.

We have a similar challenge today, facing a greater threat. This time, it seems that politicians of all stripes understand the need to do more. Will they act to put in place policies and funding that will create a new clean energy and resilient infrastructure?

Let’s hope so. And let’s hope the public keeps reminding them not to forget.

Photo Credit

National Guard

Associated CEG Initiative(s)

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