Citizens rely on their elected officials to keep the lights on, communication systems running, and emergency services operational during power outages. With both the frequency and severity of natural disasters increasing every year, cities, states, and counties all across the U.S. are looking for ways to improve their resiliency in the event of extended power outages. A recent International City/County Management Association (ICMA) survey revealed that 67% of municipalities rank aging infrastructure among the most important issues facing their local government today. In addition to the safety benefits, increasing efficiency and resiliency in public buildings, water, and transportation systems can prevent billions in future climate-related damages and economic losses.
Every city should have a resiliency plan to keep critical public and private systems running, and emergency services operational when the grid goes down. The failure rate of diesel generators during Superstorm Sandy shows that the traditional approach to backup power for critical facilities does not work. Implementing resilient power technologies across a portfolio of public buildings and community facilities requires a renewed focus on data, technology, adaptive processes for managing infrastructure and, of course, people. It also requires new thinking in terms of budget planning and project finance opportunities.
An effective city's sustainability plan depends upon the collective action and collaboration between people, organizations, and governments. As such, one of the first steps in creating an effective resiliency plan is to identify members of the community who should form the resiliency task force. The task force should include high-level community leaders drawn from diverse sectors whose input stems from a thorough understanding of the community’s challenges, opportunities, and vision. The task force should also include representatives from your local utility/utilities as well as representatives from major energy-consuming organizations such as hospitals, universities, and local industries. It makes sense to engage existing organizations that have experience working on resiliency efforts or crisis management. In addition to developing and implementing the city’s resiliency plan, strong task force engagement can boost community buy-in and support.
Critical facilities are those that provide essential community services during and immediately following a crisis. Many organizations that provide vital social services such as water, food, fuel, and communications remain vulnerable to both short- and long-term power interruptions. The list should obviously include hospitals and healthcare facilities, police, fire stations, and airports. Since vulnerable infrastructure isn’t limited to physical assets like buildings, the list should consist of systems responsible for moving electricity, commodities, water, sewage, and traffic lights.
Members of the resiliency task force should work closely with local utility/utilities to develop a more integrated approach to energy management. Programs should be developed to increase consumer understanding of and commitment to available energy efficiency programs/rebates, demand response programs, and Distributed Energy Resources (DERs).
Understanding a facility’s energy use and operational performance will provide the information required to assess options for improving resilience during power interruptions. It’s important to understand the critical electric loads (lighting, refrigeration, water booster pumps for toilets, cool rooms) that will be required during long-term power outages. In addition to providing a clear accounting of how much energy a facility uses on a daily basis, it will outline specific opportunities for reducing energy consumption.
Many municipalities don’t have a clear understanding of how much energy each critical facility uses—and how much energy they’re wasting (often as much as 30%). The amount of energy a backup system needs to produce to power a facility naturally depends on how much energy is used on a daily basis. As such, it simply makes sense to reduce consumption wherever possible, eliminating any wasted energy.
Ultimately, the goal of assessing energy requirements and asset properties is to enable the task force to make informed decisions that will result in risk reductions in the event of long-term power outages.
Cities need to re-think their power and backup systems and protect critical facilities with smarter, resilient power technologies. This requires a different response than simply purchasing more backup diesel generators. While onsite diesel generators can certainly play a role in a municipality’s resiliency plan, other Distributed Energy Resources (DER) options can provide the dual benefits of both backup power during an emergency and an efficient, onsite energy management system that reduces utility bills year-round. DERs, such as solar, combined heat & power (CHP), and battery storage have experienced exponential growth over the past few years due to the dramatic decrease in the price of DER technology, combined with federal and utility incentives for DER installations. DERs offer municipalities many additional benefits that include avoiding generation capacity costs (less need to build new generation facilities), avoiding transmission costs, reducing the need for backup power, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Distributed Energy Resources to consider:
Cities that already have strategies in place for resiliency should be applauded. But planning is just the first step. The hard part is turning plans into action and action into results.
More than 600 local U.S. local governments have developed climate action plans that include greenhouse gas reduction targets since 1991. The number has increased dramatically following the global COVID-19 pandemic and heightened public demands for increased climate action. Still, according to a report issued by Brookings research in 2020, approximately two-thirds of cities with climate pledges have not been able to achieve their greenhouse emission goals.
As such, municipalities would benefit by partnering with sustainability experts to help them achieve their sustainability goals. Accredited members of the National Association of Energy Service Companies (NAESCO) can review task force findings and recommendations, conduct energy audits on identified critical buildings, facilitate funding, and implement all necessary infrastructure upgrades.