Microgrids and Resiliency

It’s tough to believe that only one year ago, Superstorm Sandy struck the Atlantic coast. The devastation from the massive storm was wide-spread and unyielding, knocking out power to over 8.5 million people in a matter of hours. Recovery efforts have been arduous to say the least for throngs of citizens in the greater New York City region. In an update from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on October 28th, he praised the efforts of thousands of relief workers to repair the damage, but was also quick to acknowledge “…our work is not yet over.”

As Bloomberg alluded, even if most people’s lives in the region have returned to normal, work must continue to mitigate the effects of Superstorm Sandy. One area that needs to be addressed in the region deals with the aging infrastructure of the power grid and its ability to withstand another catastrophic weather event in the future.

The issue of grid infrastructure extends nationwide, evidenced by the D+ rating given by the American Society of Civil Engineers for 2013. But the problems from Sandy have created an even larger quandary to attend to in the greater NYC region.

Quite frankly, some of the region was completely unprepared for Sandy in terms of grid maintenance and organizational skills, and the end result wasn’t pretty. Following Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSEG) was already slated to take over for National Grid as the supervisory power over the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) before Sandy hit, citing communication issues between National Grid and LIPA. However, after delays to restore power to thousands of people for weeks after Sandy made landfall, the original agreement was amended to give PSEG more responsibility in the day-to-day operations of LIPA’s business model.

To their credit, LIPA has done a tremendous amount of work following the storm. They have trimmed over 2,000 miles of wire, identified and removed 1,000 problematic trees and spent nearly $10 million on replacing damaged poles as LIPA Vice President of Transmission and Distribution OperationsNicolas Lizanich stated in mid-October. He also mentioned the utility will double its current investment in tree removal and tree trimming in 2014.

New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula is another area that is working to combat the decimation brought on by Superstorm Sandy. Although no formal project has been announced, part of the city’s game plan to respond to future storms is to potentially invest into microgrids that would power critical measures like hospitals and railways in the event of a power emergency. In its simplest form, amicrogrid serves as a miniature utility that can function autonomously from the main grid whenever the utility cannot provide enough power.

For the Rockaway region, a microgrid could easily serve as the best option in the event of another catastrophic storm. In an article for Greentech Grid, Tom Bourgeois, Deputy Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center at Pace Law School, says that the Rockaways are ideal for a microgrid due to the region’s congestion and high vulnerability to flooding during major storms, with a high probability of being devastated again in a future storm. And since a microgrid is considerably smaller than a macrogrid, the Rockaways would have the advantage of identifying and solving grid problems more quickly.

Conversely, two of the drawbacks from a microgrid involve the cost it takes to implement and to also identify interested parties to fund them. In a region like the Rockaway Peninsula however, the local economy surely appears strong enough (and the memories of Sandy remain fresh enough) to assemble a competent collection of investors to pursue the project. Michael Scholl, spokesperson for the Queens Borough President’s office, told Greentech Grid that he’s is keeping an open mind on the potential of a microgrid initiative, “…We generally support anything that protects our power delivery system … [and] we welcome any study that investigates microgrids.”

The world will need to prepare more for natural disasters as climate change continues to alter the planet. These severe weather events will continue to increase in frequency and strength, as indicated by National Academy of Sciences in July. Numerous severe storms have already affected the lives of millions in a relatively short time span, including the tsunamis in Indonesia in late 2004, Hurricane Katrina a year later, the dousing rains of Hurricane Irene in 2011, and last year’s Superstorm Sandy to name a few. Even if another hurricane doesn’t strike the New York City area for an extended amount of time, rising sea levels will continue to ramp up the risk of even the smallest storms – the time to take action is now.

Photo Credit: Microgrids/shutterstock