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Energy resilience 10 years after Hurricane Sandy

A lot has changed in the energy resilience space over the past decade. Unfortunately, a lot has also remained the same.

By Seth Mullendore, Clean Energy Group

Saturday, October 29, marks ten years since Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, causing devastation across wide swaths of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It was a wake-up call for much of the region as more than 8 million customers lost power, including critical facilities and vulnerable populations. Multiple hospitals had to be evacuated when backup generators failed. Many households were left without power for weeks, with no access to essential services. Some residents in multistory affordable housing properties were left trapped in dark apartments. As power was slowly restored and communities began the long process of recovery, energy resilience became the topic of many conversations and the focus of several state-led initiatives.

Here we are, 10 years later. A lot has changed in the energy resilience space over the past decade. Unfortunately, a lot has also remained the same.

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One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is widespread outages in the wake of extreme weather. The most glaring example of this was the decimation of Puerto Rico’s power grid when Hurricane Maria struck five years ago. Millions of people lost power for weeks and even months. Power wasn’t fully restored to the most remote communities for a year after Maria. Just last month, Hurricanes Fiona and Ian resulted in outages affecting millions of people in Puerto Rico and Florida.

Billions have been spent on grid hardening efforts in hurricane-prone states like Florida. But, as the chief executive of Florida’s largest utility explained as Hurricane Ian approached, “There is no such thing as a hurricane-proof power grid.”

Hurricanes are by no means the only events resulting in extended, life-threatening power outages. Along with rainstorms and blizzards, over the past few years we’ve witnessed major outages and lives lost due to extreme cold weather in Texas, extreme heat in the Northwest, and dry wildfire conditions in the West. Each of these events has disproportionately impacted the safety and well-being of medically vulnerable and under-resourced communities, exacerbating existing injustices.

However, the response to these tragic events has begun to shift.

The increasing frequency and severity of outages coupled with growing reliance on electricity for basic needs – health care, temperature regulation, food storage, clean water, and, increasingly, transportation – has led to a widespread realization that access to reliable electricity is a core element for emergency planning and response efforts. Ten years ago, community-level energy resilience was often overlooked in emergency planning, and diesel generators were about the only source of backup generation considered. Today, local resilience hubs are being incorporated as key resources in the planning process, and batteries have become commonplace in many states.

A significant driver in the shift toward community-based energy resilience powered by clean energy resources is the rapid decline in battery storage costs. The cost of lithium-ion batteries has plummeted since Sandy, decreasing by more than 80%. This price drop has led to a correspondingly rapid rise in energy storage adoption. According to the latest data from Berkeley Lab, 10% of home solar installations now include storage, up from essentially zero 10 years ago.

The increasing severity and frequency of power outages have also been a big factor in the uptake of batteries. Utility power shutoffs during wildfire season in California resulted in a surge of battery installations in homes and essential community facilities. Interest in batteries spiked in Texas after Winter Storm Uri, resulting in six times the number of battery installations in one impacted utility territory. Nearly every solar installation in Puerto Rico now includes storage.

Amy Heart, Sunrun’s VP of policy, appeared on the Texas Power Podcast to discuss Winter Storm Uri, Texas’ interest in virtual power plants, and more. Subscribe to the Texas Power Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Time and time again, resilient solar+storage installations have proved their worth during disasters. Residential solar and batteries delivered hundreds of thousands of hours of backup power during Winter Storm Uri and Hurricane Fiona and kept more than a thousand homes powered during a severe Autumn storm in Vermont. Larger commercial systems protected affordable housing residents in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida and allowed a tribal microgrid to serve as a health and emergency response center for Humboldt County, California during extensive wildfire power shutoffs. The list goes on and on, from neighbors supporting neighbors in their homes to health centers and fire stations supporting the broader community with solar+storage powered services.

But despite impressive gains in solar+storage deployment and a growing track record of success, diesel generators remain the default resource for backup power. This is partially due to the still high upfront cost of batteries compared to traditional generators, and the fact that many of the services energy storage can provide throughout their lifetime are difficult to monetize and are undervalued by utilities and grid operators, though some state and utility programs have begun to address these value gaps. Another significant barrier to alternative, clean forms of backup power is that emergency power requirements and regulations are often written to align with the performance characteristics of traditional fossil fuel generators. In many cases, regulations specifically mandate the use of a diesel or gas generator for meeting critical backup power requirements.

To date, California is the only state that has acted to mandate the installation of solar and storage. The state’s 2022 building codes require that new commercial properties and high-rise multifamily buildings incorporate solar and batteries. New single-family properties must also include solar and be wired to be “storage-ready.” Other states and municipalities have established goals and created programs to develop more solar on government-owned facilities, such as schools, though few include storage and prioritize energy resilience. At the community level, many local governments and community organizations have begun prioritizing the development of community resilience hubs. Clean Energy Group has supported the assessment of resilient solar and storage at nearly 300 community-serving facilities since establishing the Resilient Power Project in response to Superstorm Sandy.

A DSD Renewables C&I solar project in New Jersey (Courtesy: DSD Renewables)

The growing interest and confidence in solar+storage as a reliable and socially beneficial source of energy resilience is encouraging, but there are still many barriers to widespread adoption – most notably the lack of pathways to monetize the benefits of energy storage and outdated regulations favoring traditional generators. New federal support for solar, battery storage and microgrids included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act will help close the economic gap. States and municipalities will need to act to reevaluate outdated regulatory requirements and building codes.

The grid will continue to fail. Extreme weather is here to stay, and severe events are expected to increase with climate change. The only way to ensure that communities are protected is to build reliable, resilient power systems – systems immune to inevitable fuel supply disruptions – in every neighborhood across the country, prioritizing those communities with fewer resources to prepare for and respond to major disruptions. We’re much closer to making this a reality than we were ten years ago, but there is still a great deal of work to be done and barriers to overcome before we get there.

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