The damage from Hurricane Sandy exceeds what most New York City and the surrounding areas could have ever imagined. I was living in New York City last year when the Big Apple battened down the hatches and evacuated low-lying areas for Irene. Irene, though devastating areas of Vermont and elsewhere with flooding, left NYC with a few trees down, but largely unscathed.
Sandy has been a different story altogether. The New York Times reported the week after the storm that “more than six million customers lost power Monday as Hurricane Sandy felled trees, downed power lines and flooded substations. The storm led to power failures in at least 17 states, including more than a million customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and about 660,000 in New York City. Roughly a quarter million customers lost power in Manhattan after water surging up from the East River submerged some electrical equipment in metal sheds, darkening most of the island south of 34th Street. Con Edison officials called the power failures “the largest storm related outage in our history.” In another update that week, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that about 2 million families in the region were still without power, nearly half of them on Long Island.
Much of New York City was without power for days or longer. With so many people out of power and little certainty about when electricity would be fully restored, many people found themselves facing unprecedented situations. Shops were closed, transportation systems weren’t functioning, and getting gas for cars throughout the region was a major ordeal.
People also struggled to find power to charge cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. As highlighted by this NPR Morning Edition story, for the device-dependent, the most frightening thing about a blackout is having to unplug: no e-mail, no texts, no social media, no access to breaking news. Stories emerged from Manhattan of people walking 30 blocks then lining up at the Central Post Office to charge their phone on one of the few functioning outlets. The “Charge-pocalypse” for many in the region was very real.
This crisis on the East Coast points to an important issue we must address as extreme weather events increase in frequency. How can we prepare our communities to better prepare for electricity outages when they occur?
Distributed generation and renewable back-up power could act as our first line of defense in the event of major power outages. My former program, the NYC Solar America City Partnership, partnered with the NYC Economic Development Corporation to conduct a study, Integration of Solar Energy in Emergency Planning, a few years back about the role solar energy could play in the emergency planning in the city. Some of the applications that they identified as feasible in the city include portable solar backup generation, direct power for communications, and portable lighting.
For mass outages that last days or even longer, back-up fossil fuel generators are a temporary and unreliable backup solution. In the case of the NYU hospital the night of Sandy, both of their backup generators either flooded or failed, leaving them without power and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of patients to surrounding hospitals. During prolonged outages when transportation infrastructure has also been seriously jeopardized, reserves of fuel will also quickly be depleted and difficult or impossible to refill.
Solar and other renewables could help to bring in power to keep cell phones charged and logistic centers online. Cell phones are now an individual’s life line, the primary means to communicate what is happening on the ground and also to let loved ones know they are alright or in need of help. Within 24 hours of not having electricity, the majority of cell phones, especially smart phones, would be dead leaving those worst hit by disasters the least able to communicate.
Portable solar charging stations would be an ideal solution for individuals and community emergency response teams to stay online during prolonged periods of power outage. Large roof-mounted solar installations could be installed with battery back-ups so they are able to provide power even when the grid goes down. These technologies are mature and not prohibitively expensive when compared to the costs of responding to disasters without any source of back-up power. They could and should be deployed today.
Given the events of the past week, we need to take another look at renewables and clean technologies to create more resilient cities and communities. These are basic steps that must be taken to prepare for the next century of extreme weather events brought-on by climate change.