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Resiliency: A Smarter Approach for Municipalities

A six-step approach municipalities can take to achieve resiliency

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. 

So, what's the solution?

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. 

A six-step approach to sustainability

1. Form a strong task force to develop the city’s resiliency strategy

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.

2. Prioritize a list of critical facilities in need of power protection

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.

3. Partner with your local utility to support and promote grid stability

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).

4. Assess the critical power loads in the facilities that require 24/7 power protection

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.

5. Evaluate opportunities for improving energy efficiency and sustainability in each facility

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.

  • Once a municipality understands exactly how much energy its critical facilities need, it will know how much energy it needs to have available during a crisis.
  • Reducing the overall electricity demand at each facility also reduces the energy needed to maintain critical functions, such as lighting, heating, and air-conditioning during a grid outage.
  • Reducing electricity demand also means lower initial costs for other resiliency investments (such as solar, storage, etc.).

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.

6. Determine the costs and technology options

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:

Solar + storage:

  • Solar energy allows municipalities to lower operating expenses and increase revenue by reducing or eliminating utility costs. It also protects organizations against energy price fluctuations and inflation—providing greater budget stability and improving forecasting.
  • Solar power is 100% sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective—ideal for organizations that want to reduce both energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • And, of course, there are environmental and health benefits. Fossil fuels are a major source of air pollution and ground-level ozone.

Energy Storage:

  • Since the energy generated by solar is reliant on the weather and season, municipalities are optimizing their solar systems with energy storage systems.
  • Energy storage can serve as a backup energy supply when power generation is interrupted.
  • By storing solar energy, municipalities can also reduce dependence on grid-generated power during peak demand periods when energy rates are high.
  • When pairing solar with battery storage systems on a wide scale, municipalities can both save money and also reduce strain on the grid during a crisis.

Microgrids:

  • Microgrids are local power grids that connect selected buildings and facilities to distributed energy resources, solar photovoltaic systems, and energy storage devices.
  • Microgrids are generally connected to the larger electric grid (macrogrid), but they can also disconnect and supply municipalities when the macrogrid is incapacitated or during peak demand times. This ability to maintain a reliable supply of power is the reason microgrids are an important resilience technology.
  • When microgrids supply critical facilities, such as hospitals and airports, they also increase the community’s capacity to cope with disruptive events.

Implementing the plan

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.