By now we’ve all seen the photos of houses buried in sand along the Jersey Shore, burned-out homes in Queens, and submerged subway stations in Manhattan. Those spectacular images were in the first wave of news from Superstorm Sandy last week.
The secondary, lingering effects might not be as dramatic, but they are nonetheless highly significant. And they demonstrate, ever so clearly, our need for greater resilience. As of late-afternoon Sunday, November 4th, there were still 1.8 million customers without power, the vast majority of them in New York and New Jersey. That’s down from 8.5 million without power at the peak, but it still includes almost a quarter of New Jersey. In some places outages may last for weeks.
Outages in August in New Jersey aren’t so bad — there might be some discomfort from the heat, but few at real risk of safety — but with temperatures dropping into the 30s early this week, power outages become quite serious. The vast majority of our heating systems require electricity to operate — for the fans, pumps, and controls — though there are some exceptions.
Power outages and gas stations
Along with these obvious problems of power outages — lack of lighting, heat, and appliances — power outages affect us outside the home as well.
As we learned in New Jersey and Long Island, without power most gas stations can’t operate. The American Automobile Association estimated on Thursday, November 1st, that 60% of service stations in New Jersey and 70% on Long Island were closed because they don’t have power to pump fuel. Only 23% of New Jersey service stations were still without power by Sunday morning, but lines persisted in many areas.
There were also actual fuel shortages, which contributed to the problems. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that 13 of the region’s 33 fuel terminals were closed as a result of the storm, along with two major gasoline pipelines serving the area.
Without gasoline, we can’t run our cars. But those shortages also meant that homeowners with smaller, gasoline-powered generators were running out of fuel.
Moving toward resilience
The solutions to these problems are many-faceted. Relative to the need for generators, we should build greater resilience into our homes. All homes should be able to maintain livable conditions in the event of loss of power or heating fuel. This is a familiar refrain of mine.
We can do this with much better building envelopes (significantly higher insulation levels, triple-glazed windows, tighter construction) and passive solar gain. With such features, the temperatures in those homes should never drop below 45 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of winter if there’s no power and our heating systems can’t operate.
A mobile generator and battery bank
With the net-zero-energy house my wife and I are currently building (rebuilding) in Dummerston, Vermont, we’re thinking of installing a fairly conventional grid-connected solar-electric (PV) system, but using a new inverter that is coming out early next year that allows you to plug a load into it when the sun is shining — even when the grid is down. (Most grid-connected PV systems can’t operate when the grid is down, though the sun may be shining brightly.)
Rather than a battery bank for back-up electricity during power outages, we’re thinking of using the plug-in hybrid car we plan to buy for most of our emergency power needs. It will have a battery system (which we’ll normally charge using electricity from our PV array), so why install a second battery system that will only get used during occasional power outages. Our car can be our resilient power system.
Reducing dependence on cars
Relative to gasoline shortages and the inability to pump gas during outages, we can achieve greater resilience by reducing our dependence on the automobile. This isn’t a quick fix, but through involvement in local planning efforts and by influencing transportation funding priorities, we can produce more pedestrian-friendly spaces that allow people to reach key services safely on foot or by bicycle.
If we create communities that can function reasonably well without automobiles during times of emergencies, those will be places where automobile use may also drop during normal times. These will be cleaner, safer, healthier places that move us toward sustainability.
Resilient design is about all of this. It is an integrated process that will keep us safer and allow us to bounce back more quickly from whatever the next disturbance might be.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also recently created the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.