Weathering The Coming Storms: Governor Cuomo’s Climate Panel Offers Smart Plan For Adaptation And Mitigation

by Andy Darrell, via the Environmental Defense Fund

Extreme weather and aging infrastructure came together with a vengeance in Sandy, 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 yesterday’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 and the water 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 over 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.

Building a smarter grid, and encouraging clean, efficient ‘microgrids’ that provide islands of heat and light means fewer outages and faster recovery. A smarter grid would also have the intelligence needed to pinpoint outages, cordon off damage, and reroute power.

Clearing out the legal cobwebs and requiring utilities to unlock their grids more easily would make their systems stronger and more resilient in a crisis, and open the door for more efficient, renewable energy solutions. It would also open up opportunities for new ways to finance the upgrades needed to take full advantage of efficiency and renewables in today’s buildings.

(You can read EDF’s blueprint for a smarter, more robust grid here.)

Climate change means that higher sea levels and more extreme storms are the new normal. Unfortunately, some of this is already locked in. But we still have an opportunity to prevent the worst, most costly consequences by working together to reduce heat-trapping pollution. Superstorm Sandy reminded us of the need to prepare for a more challenging future. We need to make sure the steps not only protect against the impacts we can’t avoid, but also help prevent those we can.

Yes, we will have to fortify our buildings and infrastructure, change building codes and keep generators on hand in the face of extreme weather. But a lot of the steps we can take to keep the lights on during a crisis are also steps we can take to cut the pollution that is linked to climate change and extreme weather in the first place.

As we invest federal emergency dollars to rebuild, as we get ready for the next time – let’s make sure we’re taking every step that solves for both safety and less pollution at the same time. Efficiency, a smart grid, transparent information, renewables. Unlocking multiple benefits like these can help us rebuild better, faster and stronger. And lead the way for the world’s great cities, many of which are on the coast and in harm’s way just like New York.

My kids and I were lucky to weather the storm with just inconvenience. But as I think about how might live in a future New York City, I’d like to be sure that we’re doing everything we can now to run this town on safe, clean energy. The Cuomo commission report takes a big step in that direction: let’s join the Governor and the members of this commission in making its recommendations a reality. This is an opportunity that business, political and community leaders must not miss.

10 Responses to Weathering The Coming Storms: Governor Cuomo’s Climate Panel Offers Smart Plan For Adaptation And Mitigation

  1. Scott Clark says:

    Privatizing LIPA is not smart.

  2. Whenever I read stories about successful adaptive measures, I’m torn. They show that something can be done, and that’s great. They help grow a mindset that the problem is real and solvable, which I think is true.

    OTOH, these measure are sub-puny. They are successful only in the current circumstance, which is hitting the tipping point and will soon no longer exist. They take our eyes off the ball.

    Absent immediate, large-scale reductions in GHG emissions, having a 4.8MW solar installation on a school will not matter, because the kids who should be attending the school will be in a caravan fleeing to some northern province where, rumor has it, there’s still some arable land that hasn’t been overrun with other refugees.

    We need solar on EVERY school in the next 10-20 years, and a lot of other places, too. And we can’t do it because it benefits the individual school. As the motive force to propel the necessary scale, that will fail, because a lot of schools just won’t see themselves as needing such a thing.

    We need to visualize the coming diaspora. We need the scientists and the Pentagon brass to team up like in a 1950s sci-fi flick and sit Inhofe and the other hard-core deniers down for the ungarbled que pasa. We need to act like an asteroid is going to hit us in a few years and marshal the resources to figure out how to head it off.

    Because that asteroid is bearing down closer all the time.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    It’s important to price electrical continuity into the way utilities are paid. If the utility can keep the lights on after a 10 year storm (it used to be a 100 year storm but that was then, this is now), they deserve their pay.

    If a nuclear power plant trips early and causes a massive blackout that lasts twice as long as it should, lots of accidents happen where stop lights used to work and NYC’s grocery stores close down for two weeks, that has a cost to society.

    On the other hand if the nuke doesn’t trip early and blows apart into rubble as did several Fukushima plants, then that’s a huge cost to the Union’s remaining states so don’t reward nukes that trip late. Just reward micro-systems that de-grid safely and keep working.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Probably better start working on the permanent evacuation plan. All lands below 10 meters.

    Maybe 20.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Privatising any public asset is anti-democratic, insane and larcenous, in any order you like.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It starts with the sub-puny, soft denialist, premise of using the date 2100 in its title. 2100 is baloney, put far off in the never-never land of post-mortem (for most of us) days. Certainly have one, but for pity’s sake have a bigger, better financed and more urgent ‘NYS 2050’ or earlier ‘Çommission’ to at least hint that you get the urgency of the situation.

  7. Hazel says:

    Uh, no. Not anti-democratic if voters approve it. Not insane if it’s in a market with healthy competition (i.e. not health care, prisons, or electric power: no healthy competition, inherent conflicts with public interests, etc). And not larcenous if the municipality gets a fair price for it.

    Most of the recent privatization schemes were set up to benefit one or two already wealthy business owners. But that doesn’t justify this kind of knee-jerk reaction to privatization, which can be very healthy in many circumstances.

  8. wili says:

    I think you’re right, but it may be more doable by starting with a foot and going up from there. But simple prudence, at this point, demands some such plan begin to be implemented immediately.

    (Of course, this is easy for me to say, living about as far from any ocean coast as any place in the country.)

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What ‘circumstances’, pray? Privatization is exactly akin to previous parasite raids on the common wealth, like the enclosure of the common, colonialism and imperialism and the neo-liberal obscenity of recent decades. It allows the rentiers to charge whatever the market will bear, which adversely affects the burgeoning ranks of the low paid and the stagnant middle. It provides captive audiences who cannot do without utilities, toll roads etc. It allows the already wickedly avaricious wealthy to wax fat from what ought to be public services, rather than invest in production or their legendary ‘entrepreneurship’. All capitalist ‘markets’ tend to oligopoly, if not outright monopoly. ‘Competition’ is a process by which the elite divide society into ‘winners’ (themselves) and ‘losers’ (everybody else). Far, far more beneficial is collaboration and co-operation where a utilitarian philosophy of seeking the best possible results for the greatest possible number rules, rather than the profit maximisation at all costs, even that of destroying the biosphere, is the sole raison d’étre.

  10. John McCormick says:

    Sea level rise is measured in millimeters per decade. Winter wheat and corn yield projections are measured by soil moisture and temperature parameters on a crop-year basis. Too hot, no tassels. No snow, frozen winter wheat shoots. Too early temps, fruit tree buds subjected to oncoming frost.

    We are faced with multi-trillion dollar choices as we begin to talk about accommodating that which we seem unlikely to control.

    The seas will rise but many years in the process while we have to harvest enough food for 7 billion+ every year. The NYC2100 is a fraud because it ignored the most vital commodity and that isn’t energy.