The Dummerston Energy Committee, on which I serve in my home town, is conducting an energy survey.
Partly, we are conducting this survey to understand how our town uses energy — both in our homes and in our vehicles. We have a goal in Dummerston, articulated in our Town Plan, to reduce nonrenewable energy consumption 40% by 2030, and we’re trying to establish a baseline from which to measure our success in achieving that long-term target.
But we’re also conducting this survey for another reason that may be more important: to gauge how resilient our town is.
Vulnerabilities to power outages and other problems
Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 uncovered some vulnerabilities in Vermont. Heavy rainfall on saturated ground resulted in dramatic flooding in parts of Brattleboro, Wilmington, Halifax, Newfane, and other towns. Some communities were cut off for as much as a week. Other places lost power for an extended period of time.
Irene, of course, wasn’t the first storm to cause blackouts or close off roads, and it certainly won’t be the last. Such occurrences happen almost every year from ice storms, snowstorms, heavy rainfall, and derechos that knock down trees. Other parts of the country have to worry about wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Even drought and heat waves can contribute to power outages if power plants have to shut down due to lack of cooling water or cooling water that’s become too warm.
There is also concern about issues like political strife around the world, which could threaten heating oil or gasoline supplies, and terrorism, including hacking into the power distribution system to bring down the power grid — cyberterrorism. (For a scary video of what hackers can do to a generator, check out this declassified YouTube video from the Department of Homeland Security showing the Aurora Project.) There is even concern about “space weather” or coronal discharges from the sun that could cause widespread power outages.
This got us thinking on the Dummerston Energy Committee about preparing for such problems. What can a community like ours do to become more resilient?
We realized that it would be useful to find out what percentage of Dummerston residents have emergency generators. How many have water supplies that can be accessed when there’s no power? What percentage of houses in the town can be heated with wood if there were either a shortage of heating fuel or an extended electricity outage that meant we couldn’t use our furnaces or boilers? How many renewable energy systems are there in town that can provide power when the utility grid is down? Are there places with emergency power where residents can charge cell phones during extended power outages?
Resilience is a significant focus this year of the Dummerston Energy Committee. We’re intrigued, for example, about establishing resilience hubs around town that would satisfy key needs in the event of emergencies. This is something my wife and I want to provide with the Leonard Farm property we’ve purchased in West Dummerston, and it plays a role in some of the decisions we’re making with the house and barn.
Our hope on the Energy Committee is that just by answering questions about these issues on our survey, residents will start thinking about resilience. This is a major focus of mine — especially since launching the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute in 2012 — and I’m hopeful that by raising awareness about resilience, more Dummerston residents will incorporate various resilience strategies into their homes. Doing so will help our community weather future storms and power outages relatively easily.
Ancillary benefits of resilience
Many of the strategies that can help a community become more resilient also help residents in other ways. If we improve the energy performance of our houses enough that they will never drop below 50°F at night during a power outage, as my wife and I are doing with the Leonard Farmhouse I’ve been writing about in this column, those houses will require very little energy during normal times for heating and cooling.
If we pay attention to efficiency in choosing our appliances and lighting so that key loads can be served with a back-up generator or islandable solar-electric systems, our electric bills will be kept low, saving us money and keeping our utility companies from having to invest in expensive new power plants.
If we use water resources more frugally and provide for rainwater harvesting, our lawns and landscapes will be more likely to be kept green in the event of a drought.
If we create communities in which we can get around in the event of a gasoline shortage — or an inability to pump gas (as occurred with Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey last year) — these places will be more walkable and pedestrian friendly. In the process, we are finding, such communities provide a better quality of life and become more sought-after in today’s housing market, boosting property values.
These are win-win solutions, and our energy survey in Dummerston will help us identify strategies for boosting our resilience while saving residents money and delivering other ancillary benefits.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.