Bringing Energy Resiliency to the Forefront of Disaster Preparedness

April 20, 2022

As the former Mayor of Hoboken, NJ, author Dawn Zimmer led her City through Superstorm Sandy, learning firsthand the importance of energy resiliency to keep her community safe when the entire east coast fuel supply was compromised. Through her work with Schneider Electric, she helps communities to be as sustainable and resilient as possible. Her most recent project will include NJ’s first municipal microgrid to ensure energy resiliency for critical municipal operations and charging for EV sanitation trucks through power outage events.

Natural disasters, severe weather, and planned or unplanned outages are growing in severity and frequency, posing serious risks to towns, cities, and states. For the officials tasked with leading their communities through them, there are many things that need to be considered. Evacuation routes, shelters, and short-term power backups are all top of mind but there is often one area that many don’t plan for – energy resiliency.

In the context of disaster preparedness, energy resiliency is not only about securing reliable power during times of disruption, but it is also being able to recover and get back to normal operations faster after widespread outages.

While keeping the power on is essential to resident health and safety along with minimizing business downtime, it is a step often overlooked when officials are developing their disaster preparedness strategies. In fact, these plans aren’t typically built out comprehensively until a city or town has lived through a devastating natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey or the Caldor wildfires spreading across California. A widespread power outage is likely inevitable in situations like these, so how can governments move to be proactive in their energy resiliency strategies rather than reactive?

Moving beyond backup generators 

Municipalities have come to accept the inevitability of power loss and short-term reliance on backup sources. Some officials have even scoped backup power into their emergency preparedness plans with the primary goal of connecting community shelters and first responder facilities with generators, but it’s not enough. 

Most measures of energy resiliency provide a short-term stop gap to a full loss of operations, but they are not meant to function as infrastructure that can sustain power supply for first responders, hospitals, communications, or residents which is becoming increasingly important with the number of widespread outages growing exponentially with each passing year.

When an event wipes out power for several days, or even weeks, the challenge to keep a population safe compounds exponentially when information can’t reach those affected or critical facilities running on backup generators become reliant on materials that may not be easy to source. Creating energy resiliency can power shelters and hospitals, keep emergency lines like 911 operational and keep power on for vulnerable populations, like those on ventilators, so residents can remain safe even during devastating weather events.

Incorporating new power solutions, like microgrids, into existing energy infrastructure can layer on a safety net over entire counties. Sustainable infrastructure solutions that build on existing emergency plans and integrate aspects such as the first responder fleets, command center operations, and community connectivity can vastly improve operations, even when the power isn’t out.

A full resiliency plan will not only address short-term needs following a power outage, but it can also create opportunities for infrastructure modernization with long-term impact to the community and to local government operations.

For example, the move to an interconnected and ‘smart’ energy infrastructure lays the groundwork for future technology such as renewable solar arrays and EV charging. 

Renewable solar arrays and battery storage provide cities and towns with more control of their own electrical supply and operating costs. These solutions allow facility managers to optimize building operations and be interconnected to other energy sources in the case of natural disasters.

If they are not already, local government officials should look at the electrification of their buildings and think about long-term strategies that would help them embrace sustainable energy.

Montgomery County, Maryland

When weather-induced incidences put a quarter of a million people in Montgomery County, Maryland without power, energy project manager, Michael Yambrach, turned to microgrids. With Schneider Electric's help, the county can now keep important functions that service the community operating even in the event of a power grid outage.

Developing a plan and budget for resilient infrastructure

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability, both in terms of operations and budget. Solutions can be chosen based on what’s most impactful, quickest to implement or what builds toward a longer-term energy infrastructure vision. For example, some geographies are turning to sustainable solutions to power their backup generators. Solar power and battery storage are both proving to be assets for improving energy resilience and meeting increasing electricity demand, from population growth or widespread adoption of new technologies such as EV fleet. But finding budget to make any upgrades can also pose challenges.

Although sustainability solutions will improve costs in the long-term, installing them in the short term can be a significant investment in both budget and staff time. One resource for states and municipalities to consider is entering public-private partnerships that allow them to rely on the creativity and expertise of energy service companies to help offset steep budget costs while ensuring operational stability. From design-build to energy performance contracting to streetlighting-as-a-service, there are a wide range of financial enablement vehicles that make it possible for local governments of all sizes to deploy new technologies at-scale.

While the east coast faces unexpected blackouts due to hurricanes, and the west coast may enact planned blackouts to decrease the spread of wildfires, their energy resiliency strategies are largely the same. Regardless of where they are located, or what disasters they face, energy resiliency is critical to the well-being of residents. Whatever the future may hold, energy resiliency is something public officials should consider, especially as natural disasters continue to plague our communities and are only expected to rise in number.

Read more on how to make sustainable infrastructure part of your long-term plan in our new eBook, Built to Last: A Sustainable Infrastructure Primer for Local Governments.

This article was originally posted on Route Fifty.

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