While sitting in traffic recently, I heard a poignant story on the radio about a physician’s view of recovery from life-threatening trauma. He stated, “Bad things can happen quickly but good things happen slowly.”
Written by Gavin Dillingham, Research Scientist, Clean Energy Policy
Natural Disasters and Power Resilience
It has been seven years since the last major hurricane hit Texas. Hurricane Ike hit the Texas Coast in September of 2008, the most destructive hurricane to hit Texas causing over $89 billion in damage. With such a long lapse since the last hurricane and this year’s prediction of being hit by a hurricane reduced to a 15% likelihood1, it is easy to become complacent and take the focus off of improving community resilience. However, building community resilience takes time and long-term effort.
Texas: Ready for the Big One?
Electric power resilience—or keeping the lights on and more importantly, keeping the air conditioning on—is one of the more important areas to focus on in Texas. After Hurricane Ike, much of the Houston region was without power for almost two weeks. CenterPoint had restored power to 75% of its customers 10 days after the hurricane. With 95% of CenterPoint’s 2.6 million customers going dark it would be expected that there would be greater focus on reducing outages during natural disasters. Unfortunately, there has been negligible focus and leadership at the state and local level to develop this resilience capacity. That being said, CenterPoint has been actively upgrading its infrastructure to allow for the rerouting of power if a portion of the grid goes down. Also, there has been an effort to ensure tree limbs are no longer intermingled with the power lines; tree limbs were seen as one of the largest culprits of the power outages during Ike. However, our region’s focus on tree limbs and minor upgrades to infrastructure is in very sharp contrast to the significant investment in power infrastructure that has been seen since Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012.
Investment after Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast United States coast on October 28, 2012 and caused over $71 billion in damage. After Hurricane Sandy, there was intense, long-term focus on trying to figure out how to keep the lights on during and after a storm, particularly in health care facilities and critical infrastructure. While Texas trims trees, the northeast is investing billions to improve and upgrade the power infrastructure. The state of New York is spending $1.4 billion to hardening the grid2, Con-Ed the investor owned-utility is committing $1 billion to infrastructure upgrades3 and the PSE&G utility in New Jersey has created Energy Strong, a program to invest $3.8 billion in infrastructure over a 10 year period4. Most importantly, this infrastructure development is not just going into upgrading existing infrastructure systems. There is a significant focus on microgrids and combined heat and power (CHP), aka cogeneration.
Power Resilience through CHP and Microgrids
It was largely demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, as well as Gulf Coast storms of the past, that CHP and microgrids can keep the power on at hospitals, waste water treatment plants, colleges, and multi-family complexes. A 2013 report from ICF International for the Department of Energy5, demonstrates how successful CHP was in ensuring that power remained on during and after Hurricane Sandy. This ability allows hospitals, critical infrastructure and shelters to operate during and after the storm, improving public safety and lessening risk to vulnerable populations. Nearly a quarter of Texas’ population lives in coastal counties and the majority of that coastal population lives in the Houston-Galveston region6. Hurricanes and natural disasters are only expected to become more intense and frequent7. This frequency and intensity will greatly impact the economic and societal well-being of communities. It was estimated that the power outages caused by Sandy resulted in a loss of $20 billion in economic activity8. State and local leaders need to understand the vulnerabilities of the state’s power infrastructure and the implications of complacence around investment in this power infrastructure.