Superstorms: America’s new normal?

This year, the Atlantic basin had eight consecutive storms develop—the first time in 124 years. The storms—and by storms I mean big storms—have had catastrophic effects on families, communities and the economy at large. Millions of people were left powerless, access to clean drinking water was compromised and homes were destroyed. It will take decades for the country to recover from this devastation, and hurricane season is only halfway over.

And as the intensity of these storms increases, so do their price tags. Together, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which hit the U.S. earlier this fall, are estimated to cost $150-$200 billion in combined destruction. This is an enormous blow to the economy and to tax payers’ wallets.

To those of us on the east coast, this sounds awfully similar to destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City and New Jersey hard this time five years ago. That’s why it’s important to ask: could the devastation have been avoided, or at least reduced?

Cities are building back, stronger

This year’s storms showed the vulnerability of centralized electric grids, and the need for a modernized system. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, 100 percent of the territory’s power supply was cut off to its 1.57 million customers and 80 percent of the transmission and distribution system destroyed. The rebuilding and repairs will go on for months.

Manager, EDF Climate Corps

Fortunately, changes to our current electrical system can prevent some of this. Microgrids–localized power grids that can operate independently from the main, centralized grid–are designed to provide power when the traditional grid is not functional. The ability to act autonomously strengthens the power system’s reliability and resilience, and protects critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, water treatment facilities and police stations in event of an extreme weather event like we saw this year.

They can also be “clean” by adding renewables like solar and wind that reduce reliance on fossil fuels and diesel generators—which may be compromised in a major storm event. And, since microgrids are not transmitting electricity over long distances, they don’t require an extensive network of transmission lines, allowing them to get up and running soon after a storm hits.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the City of Hoboken announced it would use recovery funds to design a microgrid that would increase its sustainability and resiliency. With the help of EDF Climate Corps, the city of Hoboken created a Microgrids Toolkit. The toolkit includes a centralized dashboard for monitoring energy use, a timeline for implementation and scorecard for tallying up the potential benefits. It’s a customizable tool that can be used to scale projects across cities, creating a more resilient coastline.

The toolkit is currently being used to study the potential for additional microgrids in other municipalities across the state.

Spotlight: NY taking action

Now New York is jumping on the microgrid train. During Sandy, nearly 2 million customers lost power and $19 billion in damages incurred. Some of the most important utility infrastructure on the city’s waterfront was destroyed, shedding light on the city’s large vulnerability issue. The New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, in charge of coordinating statewide recovery efforts for Superstorm Sandy and other major weather events, has vowed to not only build back, but build back stronger.

The agency, in coordination with NYSERDA, is working on a community Microgrids Program that would mitigate future instances of power outages. EDF Climate Corps fellow Ben Bovarnick was hired to develop up to five microgrids in municipalities to demonstrate the feasibility and best practices for publicly-financed projects. The program had started to identify optimal projects, but sought new ideas for integrating advanced energy technologies and renewable energy into the projects.

Bovarnick identified opportunities for energy storage to reduce electricity demand and provide cost savings as well as improved system stability. Battery storage will also help with peak shaving and back up electricity, which has the potential to improve the project value and save the municipality on annual electricity expenditures.

Prepare, not react

The truth is, these superstorms are likely to continue, and their severity may increase. That means preparedness is key. States and municipalities, especially on the coast, must work together to create a comprehensive framework to tackle resiliency. Our efforts and finances should be invested in developing solutions that prevent extreme devastation, as opposed to cleaning up the aftermath.

Sandy was our wakeup call. But although post-Sandy protection-projects were introduced, there’s still a long way to go. Fortunately, the technology is out there to make resiliency a reality.

Follow Ellen on Twitter, @ellenshenette

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