Energy network resilience isn't an option for cities: it's now a requirement

Climate change has caused intense heat waves, hurricanes and cataclysmic destruction in several parts of the world. Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico a year ago claiming almost 3,000 lives and causing roughly $90 billion in damages. In many areas blue tarps still cover roofs, a vivid way of illustrating that restoration and reconstruction efforts have yet to begin. On September 14 Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas. To date, at least 37 people lost their lives in that storm and very early damage estimates range from $15 billion to $22 billion — and rivers are continuing to rise, hampering recovery work.
While energy network resilience isn't a complete solution for how cities can effectively recover from natural disasters, it is essential for every aspect of those recovery efforts: from powering first responders' communications networks to keeping health care facilities and public safety services operating.

The story below highlights practical, effective ways cities can mitigate damage from extreme weather and speed up the work of recovery. Climate change is forcing our hand. Robust, resilient, flexible energy networks are one way we can push back. — Doug Peeples


In 2017 there were 16 weather and climate-related disaster events with losses over $1 billion in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Even worse, the total cumulative cost of the damage was more than $300 billion, an unenviable new annual record for the country.

Council Associate Partner Eaton, a power management and technology services company, prepares a Blackout Tracker Annual Report. For 2017, it recorded 3,526 power blackouts lasting longer than 81 minutes — affecting almost 27 million people.

Granted, the great majority of the blackouts referred in Eaton's report didn't involve major weather-related disasters. Old tree branches fall on power lines and cars and trucks hit power poles. The point is that power outages affect a lot of people, whether massive disruptions caused by extreme weather or smaller outages caused by fairly mundane occurrences. At the very least, they're inconvenient and harm local economies. At worst, they claim lives and are responsible for billions of dollars in damage. And massive or relatively small, outages affect local economies and illustrate the value of resilient smart energy networks.

What can cities do to improve their energy resilience?
The citizens and businesses of every city, whether a major metropolitan area or a small suburban or rural community, expect reliable electric service. And when a problem occurs, they expect a speedy resolution. Consider the following a checklist of best practices for how smart cities can deliver on those expectations. Some of them are borrowed from commerce and industry, but they apply equally well to cities that want to ensure their citizens' needs and expectations are met. All cities have their own circumstances and specific needs. Not every option listed is recommended for every city or community. Think of them as tools your city may want to use.

Backup generation: Backup generation shouldn't be confused with installing generators in the basement and forgetting about them. Uninterruptible power systems back up power for critical operations such as hospitals and data centers. They can include energy storage alone or be coupled with microgrids. Think of a microgrid as a mini-electric grid capable of integrating renewable energy like wind and solar, storing it and delivering it on a small scale. Microgrids and some energy storage systems can operate independently of the primary electric grid as stand-alone systems.

A cautionary note: industries use energy storage for peak use shaving, meaning that they can draw from their own stored resources when electricity power prices are high to cut energy costs and increase energy efficiency. But if they're grid-connected they shut down when the grid goes down. If your city is considering energy storage for resilience in the event of a grid outage, invest in one that provides  resilience. The energy efficiency capabilities and potential for cost savings are part of the package.

Renewable energy resources: small-scale renewable energy deployments are increasingly common solutions and the technologies (such as solar panels, rooftop solar, geothermal and wind turbines) are becoming less expensive as the technologies improve in effectiveness. And they're increasingly compatible with energy storage systems.

Partner with local electric utilities: Your city's electric utility has experience with resilience. It's in their best interests to be reliable and to cooperate with the cities they serve.

Consider energy analytics: Typically used in manufacturing environments, energy analytics programs use wireless sensors to inexpensively evaluate how anything from a single piece of machinery to an entire system is using energy.

Resilience economics: We've already made the case for why energy resilience is essential for a smart city economically. Power outages can disrupt the ability of local businesses to produce and deliver their products and services. In many instances, every minute of a power outage can be costly. So steps taken to enhance grid resilience encourages those businesses to remain in the community. And there's more.

Economic competitiveness: What are promising startups or established companies looking for when considering where to locate or re-locate? One very important consideration is how reliable and resilient a city's energy network is. Those businesses need to know they can count on secure, uninterrupted service.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.