Sandy One Year Later

"RockawaysOne year ago, Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the coast of New Jersey. This time last October, communities were under water, millions of East Coasters were without power, and the New York-New Jersey region weathered one of the toughest weather-related crises in anyone’s memory. Storm-caused power outages alone (just the tip of the iceberg) caused an estimated $14–$26 billion in economic losses according to New Jersey congressman Donald Payne Jr., who introduced legislation for an 18-month, $2.1 million study of the electric grid and how it can be strengthened.

Now, a slew of articles are flooding (pardon the pun) the media, from Fast Company to ClimateWire (and just about every other news outlet I’ve been reading lately). They’re all asking various versions of familiar questions: What did we learn or not learn from Sandy? What has and hasn’t changed? Are we better prepared today than one year ago to weather a similar event? Or does a real transformation toward more resilient communities take time?

When it comes to New York and New Jersey’s electric grid, the answers are complicated, at once frustrating and encouraging. And as a native of Long Island, New York, who later lived in New Jersey, I’ve watched the region’s developments with keen interest.

Recovery—rebuilding and hardening more of the same

"SandyIn New Jersey, some 2.7 million people lost power during the storm. Jersey Central Power & Light, which covers about 1.1 million customers, spent $603 million in Sandy-related repair costs, and is also planning both an additional $200 million in ongoing storm repair work and a $1.8 billion infrastructure investment over the next decade. To date, the utility’s efforts have included rebuilding downed transmission lines, replacing distribution cables, and expanding tree trimming near utility poles and lines.

Of course, such efforts are necessary to get the grid up and power back to customers as soon as possible. But they also amount to placing a bandage on a wounded and inherently fragile system. Sandy had exposed the utility’s aging network, said the Asbury Park mayor.

Meanwhile, PSE&G, which covers 2.2 million customers in New Jersey, was widely praised for its Sandy response, which included $426 million in storm-related damages as of July earlier this year. More recently, the utility has focused on planned steps to harden its grid against future storms. Earlier this month, PSE&G proposed spending $1.7 billion just to protect 91 susceptible-to-flooding substations—building flood walls around some, eliminating others, and elevating others on concrete platforms above FEMA flood zones. Those efforts are part of a larger proposal—currently before New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities—to spend $2.6 billion over five years and up to $3.9 billion over the next decade, an effort PSE&G is calling Energy Strong.

In New York—especially New York City and Long Island—the initial story was much the same. Millions of people lost power, followed by a rush to restore the grid as quickly as possible. But as became painfully clear, for portions of the aging, fragile grid, that was easier said than done. In the city, most customers had power back within four days, though some went without power for two weeks in what became the longest outage in utility ConEd’s history.

The problem was partly the magnitude of the storm, which affected not only New York’s in-city power generation but also its imported power from neighboring New Jersey and Long Island. The vulnerability of that generation also proved problematic. For example, currently 53 percent of New York City’s power plants are in the 100-year flood plain (Sandy’s storm surge posed the far greater problem than her winds). That vulnerability will only get worse. According to A Stronger, More Resilient New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s $20 billion climate action plan for the city, 97 percent of those power plants will be in the flood plain by 2050.

On neighboring Long Island, utility LIPA’s response angered many; it was so abysmal, in fact, that the CEO resigned and LIPA now faces a class action lawsuit brought by customers. Two weeks after the storm, some 45,000 customers were still without power (my mother among them). In the end, Governor Cuomo stripped LIPA of its responsibility and put New Jersey’s PSE&G in charge of operations for Long Island’s grid.

Clearly, something had to change. But in addition to hardening the existing grid, could utilities, regulators, and local, state, and federal government leaders truly use Sandy as a catalyst to build a better grid?

Resiliency—Sandy as impetus for a grid of the future

"sandyAs New Jersey continues to rebuild and look to the future, the state—at least as far as its electric grid is concerned—has proven itself a place of contradictions. For example, New Jersey is a nationwide leader when it comes to distributed generation, especially solar. It ranks third in the country for total installed solar capacity with more than 1.1 GW of solar statewide. PSE&G likewise ranks third nationwide among utilities for annual additions of grid-connected solar.

Yet, critics have been quick to point out that PSE&G’s Energy Strong proposal is conspicuously devoid of strategies that leverage energy efficiency, distributed generation such as rooftop solar, and microgrids. And who can forget the irony that the overwhelming majority of customers with rooftop solar—accounting for 80 percent of New Jersey’s solar capacity—were in the dark when the grid went down, thanks to how those systems are interconnected. Remember the stories of Nissan LEAF and Toyota Prius owners using their cars’ batteries to power their homes? The Energy Strong plan, in a sense, fails to leverage one of the state’s greatest existing assets.

In New York, the situation is just the opposite. While New Jersey boasts robust solar capacity it’s failing to leverage to improve grid resiliency (via strategies such as microgrids), the Empire State’s been trailing behind in solar but has ambitious plans to make up ground fast.

The state had only 175 MW of total installed solar capacity through the end of 2012. But consider New York City’s climate action plan, released in June. Among strategies that harden the generation, transmission, and distribution systems, it also calls out a number of strategies that get the likes of RMI pretty excited:

  • Bolstering generation from low-carbon renewables, including a proposal (currently in study phase) to build 700 MW of offshore wind capacity off the coast of the Rockaway peninsula, one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy
  • Divesting “too big to fail” transmission nodes
  • Deploying smart grid technologies
  • Reducing energy demand through efficiency, demand response, and other strategies
  • Scaling up distributed generation, including solar, as well as microgrids (with a citywide goal of 800 MW of capacity by 2030)
  • Building out an EV infrastructure system to enable two-way power flows for grid resiliency benefits
  • Piloting battery storage technologies

These city-specific strategies are on top of New York’s statewide effort, NY-Sun, which coincidentally launched six short months before Sandy. It includes a variety of programs and incentives to quadruple the state’s annual solar capacity additions this year compared to 2011. And that’s just for starters.

Outside organizations and agencies are getting in on the resiliency act, too. HUD’s guidance document, Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy: Strong Communities, A Resilient Region, calls on states to work with DOE and IEEE to develop a new approach to grid operations, including smart grids, microgrids, and distributed generation such as solar. In addition, Global Green’s Solar for Sandy initiative, with funding from IKEA, is trying to make that future a reality by installing grid-tied, backup solar in Sandy-impacted communities, helping make them better prepared to withstand the next event.

Ultimately, we’re left with neighboring states and utilities pursuing widely divergent philosophies on the future of their electric grids. PSE&G is betting on centralized grid control in the face of another catastrophe, and focusing on security of electricity supply rather than working with customers to manage demand, too. New York and ConEd are betting on distributed systems that require much less central management. Those distributed systems are likely to be far more nimble during the next disaster. If New York is successful making that electricity system transition, it will challenge others to follow in those footsteps, choosing operational and business models that have the flexibility to take the worst that mother nature throws at them.

Of course, solar and other distributed resources are not a panacea. PSE&G’s utility solar was impacted by Sandy, for example—ground-mounted systems were flooded by storm surge, while roof-mounted systems were battered by wind and lightning. On the whole, though, New Jersey’s 1.1-plus GW of solar came through relatively unscathed and ready to power the state, if the system enabled it to do so… especially if distributed storage adds flexibility, resiliency, and islandability to the region’s solar PV systems.

That grid of the future isn’t here yet. But if we take the lessons of Sandy to heart and do not return to hardening a status quo grid, we have an exciting opportunity before us to build communities powered by clean, resilient electricity better able to withstand the storms and other threats we know are coming.

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