Extreme weather and aging infrastructure came together with a vengeance when Hurricane Sandy hit, showing the fragility of the basic systems that sustain this vibrant city and region. Like so many others, my family lost power, heat and water during Superstorm Sandy, and I watched out my window as a giant flash marked the moment that waters crested a 12-foot retaining wall at the 14th Street ConEd plant.
New Yorkers are all too familiar with the devastation that followed, and the disruption that spread far beyond the water’s reach. As the immediate crises are resolved, our attention is now on the complex challenge of long-term resilience.
One big step: The NYS 2100 Commission, a panel of experts assembled by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo back in November, just two weeks after the storm. EDF CEO Fred Krupp served on the commission, and our energy team prepared extensive recommendations on how to make our energy system more robust, resilient and adaptable. In last week’s State of the State address, he talked about the results.
As it turns out, some important solutions were right under our noses.
For example, amid the darkness and devastation, there were dozens of homes, businesses, even whole communities that kept their lights on because they were designed to isolate breakdowns, heal quicker, and work with natural systems rather than against them.
Success stories were located across our region:
- Lights stayed on for sixty thousand residents of Co-op City in the Bronx thanks to a combined heat and power plant that can operate independent of the grid. Ditto the office tower at One Penn Plaza, an apartment building at 11 Fifth Avenue, and large parts of the campuses at Princeton and NYU.
- In Bayonne, NJ, the Midtown Community School used a combination of solar panels and a generator to offer a safe, warm place to stay for more than 50 residents during the storm.
- On Long Island, the Villani family kept their lights on thanks to a 4.8 kw solar array that happens to have a battery bank. “We had friends and neighbors coming over to charge phones and batteries,” Stephanie Villani said.
- In lower Manhattan, the community group Solar one used solar panels to offer residents of Stuyvesant Town, the sprawling 35-building apartment complex, a place to charge their phones and computers.
Exceptions like these should be the rule next time. Unfortunately, today’s utility grid is set up to discourage more of these success stories -- which are also cleaner and more efficient.
In fact, many buildings outfitted with fresh new solar arrays stayed dark thanks to cumbersome, outdated rules and regulations. Ironically, the solar panels were not making electricity when the grid was down, precisely because they were permanently connected to the grid and had to be shut down, rather than simply unhook when the larger system failed. So instead of sunshine, they were running on diesel power -- if they were running at all.
Next page: What about smart grids?