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Sandy: the power sector's 9/11


The analyses of "what to do" in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastating effect on all aspects of life along a vast swath of the country from the mid-Atlantic to New England, particularly along the coast, have begun. Good information will take time, which is in short supply.

The challenge of determining the best actions, and the appropriate level of resources to spend on each, is so multi-faceted that inertia may in fact prevent any meaningful action at all. Place the power and telecom sectors in the midst of this situation and I sincerely wonder, in the current political climate, whether any evidence-based conclusions will be drawn, much less acted on. 

Let's review the multiplicity of challenges to post-Sandy life and place the power sector's challenges in context. 

First, the cause. From the preponderance of scientific evidence, excess man-made greenhouse gases are trapping warmth in the atmosphere, leading to extreme weather, including more powerful storms. As anyone trained in science knows, probability should guide action. Doubts based on uncertainties require investigation and supporting data. There's a chance that climate change is naturally occurring and impervious to human action. There's a chance other factors are in play. I note, in Sandy's wake, a deafening silence from the denial crowd. But I don't expect an improvement in the quality of the debate over whether we can or should attempt to address the cause with economically rational policies. Instead, as the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City have made plain, they will take local action in the face of palpable destruction.

Second, the preparation. Bryan Norcross, a Weather Channel meteorologist, has called for more urgent storm warnings that clearly communicate the likely destructive force of storms winging out of the tropics. (See "Speaking His Mind, Beyond the Forecast.") One worries about the potential to create false urgencies, akin to the boy who cried "wolf!" too many times for credibility. But a day or two of warning affords citizens the decision to fight or take flight. 

Third, human nature. A storm? Many choose to "ride it out," properly warned or not, prepared or not. Most are ill-prepared, due to hubris, a lack of money or a place to go. Despite three near-catastrophic storms in one year, with commensurate damage, only a fraction of the population was better prepared this time. Some bought generators and stored fuel, others didn't have a flashlight handy. 

Fourth, uncertainty. The foregoing factors can be forgiven, certainly at least once, because "storm preparations" by citizens along the coast during a hurricane like Sandy can only amount to a few finite acts: having cash on hand, non-perishable foods, a camp stove, sleeping bags, a stock of fuel, plenty of potable water, gas or battery driven lanterns, perhaps solar- or micro-turbine-driven radios and personal self-defense measures in place. In some areas, unbelievably, an inflatable dinghy with a foot pump would have been sensible. I'm not kidding. 

Fifth, community. I saw coverage of neighbors in Brooklyn banding together to prevent looting. People in towering public housing projects huddled 15 stories above the street, braving dark staircases. And successful urban and suburban citizens no better off. If not for medical personnel, firefighters, police, National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency actions, how would anyone believe that staying in place and maintaining order had positive value? 

In the foregoing context, a lack of power and telecommunications moves society very close to the breaking point. I've heard folks who returned from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there point out how thin a veneer "society" is when all forms of order are destroyed. The power sector is aware of the critical role electricity plays in maintaining that veneer. It's long past time to emerge from invisibility and stake out electricity's proper role in our lives, our security and our economy.  

I'd suggest that while the first century of widespread electric service was marked by closely related ubiquity and low cost, the second century, now well underway, will need to be marked by a stepped up devotion to reliability and resiliency. That means a combination of measures to improve grid (and telecom) hardening and even greater emphasis on the next buzzword, resiliency. 

The costs of achieving these steps must be compared to the costs of not doing them. If Hurricane Sandy's impact in terms of destruction and lost economic activity is preliminarily pegged at some $50 billion - perhaps half we all pay, half the locals pay - then what steps could be considered affordable to avoid a couple more events of this magnitude? 

I don't advocate some panicked tilt to expensive infrastructure improvements in 2013. But swift, evidence-based conclusions on hardening and resilience, divided into near-term, mid-term and generational efforts, incrementally funded going forward is the only sensible response.

It's not all about powerful storms. Consider that Sandy did more damage than many terrorists could dream of. Resources could be prioritized for instances where physical and cyber security dovetail with hardening and resilience in the face of natural threats. 

The timeline is . forever into the future. So the fundamentals, such as zoning, building codes and designs, even acts as wacky as "beach replenishment," in which billions of dollars are spent moving millions of cubic yards of sand to maintain tourist destinations and economic activity, must be rethought. (Think I'm kidding? See "Shoring Up Coastal Communities.") 

To the smart grid, we return. "Resiliency" will become the catchword that follows "sustainability." "Service continuity" becomes synonymous with "business continuity" for utilities. Indeed, the hype cycle of smart grid is just so much flotsam today. Just as smart grid has brought the promise of outage detection, quicker restoration, improved asset management and situational awareness to grid operators under relatively static conditions, now the digital investments must be held to account. How did these technologies perform when Sandy hit the fan? Don't dare hand me anecdotal evidence and spin. 

How will utilities apportion their limited resources? How does the expenditure of substantially greater resources aimed at vegetation management, say, stack up to distribution automation along the Eastern seaboard during a hurricane, in the foothills of the Rockies during a catastrophic fire, during a one-two punch of a tropical storm, then a winter storm in northern climes? These events all came home to roost in the past 12 months. 

What is the proper proportion of resources accorded to hardening and resiliency on the electrical grid? My gut tells me that hardening will only go so far in the face of extreme storm events and that resiliency is where to spend the money. Yet one can't be ignored for the other. And "gut feelings" have no place where evidence can inform. Now that asset inventories are improving, it shouldn't be hard to address the current and near-term grid with hardening steps in mind. Undergrounding, for instance, is expensive, but where it makes sense, it should be a long-term priority. Substations in coastal cities may have to exist on the surface, with higher, harder shells. Boiler rooms, electric connections? Second floor is the new normal. Resiliency will come in two packages: first, the strategies and tactics humans use to deploy field workers to address destruction, then restoration; second, the technologies that aid restoration and its communication to operators and the public. 

These musings are the easy part. We have the scientific method to analyze what worked in the past year's extreme storm events and what's economically feasible to do moving forward. We need the political will to balance the cost of damage done in 12 months with the incremental cost of moving ahead intelligently over a generation to better prepare for the next extreme event, whether it be coastal, inland or in the highlands where I live. 

What makes me optimistic is that limited resources and rising challenges tend to sharpen the mind and, if approached rationally, lead to savvier investment decisions. The corollary here is the human factor. Utilities serving coastal areas may well have to place system-based values on zones in their service territory. Live on a beach? Expect to be the last house in which power is restored. Live along the margin of a national forest during a drought year? Evacuation is your responsibility. Transparency around a system-based restoration strategy is a must to avoid the perception (and the reality) that well-heeled customers receive the swiftest aid. 

I think Sandy is the natural equivalent of 9/11. It's a wake-up call about the new world of the 21st century. But instead of leading to the self-delusional clutching of a security blanket, played out in a bloated bureaucracy and insensible growth in the "security" industry, the power sector is in position to get it right. Resiliency dovetails with sustainability, because diversity is strength. Just look at any nautical rope to understand that concept. Well-woven strands are always stronger than a single cable. 

The word "holistic" gets bandied about too frequently. But if you combine our response to natural threats and cyber threats with the nascent race to win not just energy independence but energy mastery, as well as exploiting the resulting data that can foretell trends to economic advantage, the race to the moon looks like an antiquated relic of a bygone age. 

There's nothing Americans can't do when they work in concert. The only question is: Will we? Or will we devolve into squabbling and consign our children into slavery, at best? 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily 




Dan Wilson's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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