Elevating the Priority of Resilience in our New Climate Reality


This post is the second in a series on eLab Accelerator 2016. It provides the perspective on a relevant topic from faculty member Eleanor Stein. Throughout Accelerator, expert faculty are on-hand to offer training and insights on critical content areas and spur thought-provoking discussions. Opinions from guest authors are not intended to reflect the opinions of all eLab Accelerator event attendees. Stay tuned for more updates and perspectives from eLab Accelerator.

Many states and cities—and many utilities—are reexamining their capacity to withstand uncertainties, emergencies, and attacks of various kinds. Although governments and utilities have long developed and deployed emergency response protocols, new conditions are making new demands to increase resilience. These new conditions fall into several categories ranging from cyber-attacks to catastrophic storms. Although the general category of “acts of God” or “natural disasters” has always been on the planners’ agenda, today they also need a thorough examination of what has been called “the long emergency:” the impacts of climate change. These impacts include the gradual but relentless increase in ambient heat, extreme heat events, and catastrophic storms, fires, and floods.

Despite resemblance to other weather events, the impacts of climate change are really a category all their own. In addition, no state is immune from climate change effects. This means energy planners need to be aware of anticipated climate impacts to make wise planning and infrastructure decisions. In other words, planning for energy resilience should not be divorced from the effects of climate change; rather, an explicit assessment of its risks is essential for a meaningful resilience policy.

A discussion of what we mean by resilience is an essential exercise, so many localities are grappling with that question. New York uses this definition for resilience, distinguishing it from simply hardening utility infrastructure to withstand the next storm: “Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand shocks and stresses while still maintaining its essential functions.” 

New York has also taken steps to address energy resilience. For example, following Superstorm Sandy, New York’s Consolidated Edison agreed to modify its risk assessment tools to incorporate future climate effects, such as increased heat, extreme heat events, storms, and sea level rise. Con Edison also reconsidered its engineering design standards based on the maximum temperature the system was engineered to withstand. Other regions have, of course, other challenges—not only for emergencies, but also for load-shifting effects like changing load profiles as weather patterns change. 

The New York Public Service Commission stated, in its 2015 Con Edison rate order, “We expect the utilities to consult the most current data to evaluate the climate impacts anticipated in their regions over the next years and decades, and to integrate these considerations into their system planning and construction forecasts and budgets.” Hopefully, New York’s leadership in addressing resilience concerns through its Reforming the Energy Vision initiative—the most comprehensive regulatory and business model reform effort in the country—will pave the way for others to follow suit.

Global corporations are facing a similar challenge in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Key findings from a 2015 report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Weathering the Next Storm: A Closer Look at Business Resilience, include: 

  • Most major companies recognize and report climate risks. Ninety-one percent of companies in the S&P Global 100 Index see extreme weather and climate change impacts as current or future risks to their business.
  • Companies worry about climate impacts beyond their facilities. Almost all companies interviewed expressed concern about impacts to their supply chains and public infrastructure.
  • There isn’t one right way to assess and manage climate risks. Many companies view climate change as a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing risks. This puts climate change into a familiar context, but could cause companies to overlook or underestimate the threats they face.
  • Companies struggle to translate long-term, global climate data into short-term, local risks. Despite growing access to climate-related data and tools, companies say they need “actionable science” that helps them understand locally specific risks or risk scenarios.

We are fortunate to have access to an enormous archive of anticipated climate change impacts. And scientists have long been able to forecast statewide and even local climate impacts reasonably accurately. Energy planners ignore the scientific climate change studies of our own neighborhoods at our peril.

Eleanor Stein was the project manager for the New York State Public Service Commission’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative from 2014–2015, after serving as administrative law judge on renewable, energy efficiency, and climate resilience proceedings. She teaches climate change law at Albany Law School and the Power Dialog at the University at Albany. She is an expert for America’s Power Plan.

Image courtesy of iStock.