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Build business resilience with climate-adaptive infrastructure

Sponsored: Our global climate crisis deepens on the need for cleaner, resilient versions of essential systems that keep business operational.

Tree in a half green, lush landscape and a half black and white city landscape

Five strategies can help commercial businesses build resilience to weather the storms. Image courtesy of AdobeStock.

This article is sponsored by Black & Veatch.

As climate change supercharges hurricanes, flooding and drought, U.S. businesses realize the potentially high cost of vulnerability. Flooding is a prime example. According to a study by First Street Foundation and Arup, about 730,000 retail, office and multi-unit residential properties are at risk of flood damage in the U.S. The potential structural damage associated with this probabilistic flooding is $13.5 billion, and lost working days could total 3 million. Local economies would lose nearly $50 billion due to lost business output and indirect impacts that create a cascade of effects down the economic chain.

While worst-case scenarios are ominous, the global community amplified the use of clean renewable energy and electric vehicles in 2022, which slashed carbon emission totals. Doing their part, companies are developing climate-adaptive, sustainable business models. Black & Veatch recommends they integrate resilience into their infrastructure and across operational culture, starting with these five targeted actions.

1. Manage climate vulnerability

Climate analytics help enterprises identify the likelihood of climate hazards and the resulting impacts on their operations. With this knowledge, businesses prioritize funding towards adapting or mitigating their buildings, systems or functions to the predicted risk.

Recently, Black & Veatch evaluated how hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions could potentially damage infrastructure belonging to a major East Coast utility. In-house meteorologists studied 70 years of tropical systems and developed a tropical "storm scale" that measured storm intensity, overall aerial coverage, flooding and impacts on the utility’s service territory. Black & Veatch used a combined total scoring index for this data to develop a recurrence interval for the utility’s current service area. This comprehensive analysis resulted in the 20-year storm damage index modeled with historical storm cost analysis.

The utility is using the final storm reserve analysis to understand its vulnerability, inform adaptation and mitigation efforts, and plan financially for the potential costs of climate change. Businesses can reduce their exposure with a similar application.

2. Decarbonize energy and reduce water consumption

In the U.S., the commercial sector accounts for 12 percent of the total energy consumption, and some commercial facilities, like data centers, use a whopping 3 to 5 million gallons of water per day. It’s no surprise that businesses often focus on resource reduction and decarbonization to cut costs, build resilience and decrease their impact on the environment. With the right engineering alchemy, many technologies can provide compound benefits in one application.

Take the Nautilus Data Center in Port of Stockton, California, as an example. The facility uses recirculated water from a nearby source to cool the data center, and the water body becomes a heat sink. Innovative designs mean that Nautilus consumes no water, produces no wastewater and requires no refrigerants, water treatment chemicals, cooling towers or computer room air handlers. The technology uses less than one-third of the power traditional computer room air-conditioning would use for cooling. Through Nautilus' innovation and Black & Veatch engineering, California is host to the world's first zero-water consumption data center.

3. Draw on ecological resilience

Sustainability actions often occur within the operational confines of a business, community or service district. But the best plans for sustainable systems work across geography and ecology to emphasize an area’s natural resilience features and work in sync with Mother Nature.

Babcock Ranch, Florida, serves as a great example. Hurricane Ian, the Category 4 storm that slammed into Florida in October, knocked out electricity to 2.6 million Floridians. However, shops, offices, grocery stores, restaurants and homes in Babcock Ranch sustained no power or internet loss despite being about 20 miles from the storm’s landfall.

At the heart of Babcock Ranch’s resilience are sustainable design engineering and construction practices. For example, previously drained cattle ranchland was allowed to revert to natural wetlands. The wetlands function like retention ponds to uptake excess rain and floodwater. Native plants comprise 75 percent of the community’s landscaping, which withstand high winds and soggy conditions to lessen storm impacts.

The Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center and Babcock Preserve Solar Energy Center is at the community’s energy core. Built on 870 acres of land, each center is capable of generating 75 megawatts (MW) of clean energy capacity via 680,000 solar panels, augmented by a 1 MW battery energy storage system. Despite hurricane wind gusts of 150 miles per hour, Babcock Ranch’s solar panels remained intact and functional, providing resilient, decarbonized energy.

Perhaps as Mother Nature intended, communities are embracing ecological processes and designing hardscapes that align with the environment — and for good reason. Streets that direct water away from homes and businesses, hardy native vegetation and underground electric distribution wires and communication infrastructure protect critical services and functions, building resilience.

4. Use data to increase project value

When businesses plan to develop or upgrade their infrastructure, tools such as Envision, an infrastructure rating tool, can be helpful. Envision measures and tracks resource use to identify options to use local sourcing and cut emissions, energy and water use, which optimizes the long-term project costs. Businesses set and achieve environmental and resilience goals, increasing resource stewardship without sacrificing functionality or cost.

Data helps businesses align their activities to local conditions to support regional environmental goals or reduce hazard vulnerability. For example, wind energy is of growing interest to businesses and institutions.

Recently, Alliant Energy became the first wind farm developer to receive Platinum Envision verification for its Upland Prairie and English Hills projects. Black & Veatch assembled an integrated team of accredited Envision Sustainability specialists alongside environmental permitting, water and renewable energy engineering experts to deliver five utility-scale wind farms totaling 470 MW across Iowa.

5. Create a culture of sustainability

Building resilience often means introducing new technologies, such as an electric fleet or clean energy systems. If the end users do not embrace, learn and adopt the new way of doing things, sustainable operations will not succeed, nor will they achieve the expected return on investment.

An organizational strategy to guide sustainable practices will help determine and manage operational impacts, keep morale high as new technologies are introduced, ensure staff skills evolve to support new operations, and align outcomes with goals. A good plan clearly articulates strategic business goals and leaves room for flexibility if something is not working and needs to be adjusted.

While the International Energy Administration indicates substantial progress in the global effort to control CO2 emissions, the need persists for greener, resilient and adaptive infrastructure in commercial businesses and beyond. Design and engineering innovation are leading these changes, creating cleaner, resilient versions of essential systems that work in sync with the built and natural environments.

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