Gas Lines Point to a Need for Resilience

Posted by on Nov 2, 2012 | 8 comments

A gas line on November 1st in Woodbridge, New Jersey. AP photo.

By now we’ve all seen the photos of houses buried in sand along the Jersey Shore, burned-out homes in Queens, and submerged subway stations in Manhattan. Those spectacular images were in the first wave of news from Superstorm Sandy this week.

The secondary, lingering effects might not be as dramatic, but they are nonetheless very significant. And they demonstrate, ever so clearly, our need for greater resilience. As of yesterday, November 1st, there were still 4.5 million customers without power in New York, New Jersey, and surrounding states, and it appears that many of those outages may extend well beyond a week.

Along with the usual problems of power outages—lack of lighting, heat, and appliances—power outages affect us outside the home as well.

Gas lines have become a traffic hazard in New Jersey and Long Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Sean Malone

Without power, most gas stations can’t operate. The American Automobile Association estimated yesterday that 60% of service stations in New Jersey and 70% on Long Island are closed because they don’t have power to pump fuel.

There are also actual fuel shortages. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that 13 of the region’s 33 fuel terminals were closed as of Thursday, along with two major pipelines serving the area: the Buckeye and Colonial pipelines.

Without gasoline, we can’t run our cars. But it has also meant that homeowners with smaller, gasoline-powered generators are running out of fuel.

Moving toward resilience

The solutions to these problems are many-faceted. Relative to the need for generators, we should build greater resilience into our homes. All homes should be able to maintain livable conditions in the event of loss of power or heating fuel.

We can do this with much better building envelopes (significantly higher insulation levels, triple-glazed windows, tighter construction) and passive solar gain. With such features, the temperatures in those homes should never drop below 45 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of winter if there’s no power and our heating systems can’t operate. (Without electricity, the vast majority of gas- and oil-fired heating systems can’t operate.)

People waiting to fill gas cans to fuel their generators at a gas station in Madison Park, New Jersey on October 31st. Photo: Lucas Jackson, Reuters

A mobile generator and battery bank

With the net-zero-energy house my wife and I are currently building (rebuilding) in Vermont, we’re thinking of installing a fairly conventional grid-connected solar-electric (PV) system, but using a new inverter that is coming out early next year that allows you to plug a load into it when the sun is shining—even when the grid is down. (Most grid-connected PV systems can’t operate when the grid is down, even when the sun is shining brightly.)

Rather than a battery bank for back-up electricity during power outages, we’re thinking of using the plug-in hybrid car we plan to buy for most of our emergency power needs. It will have a battery system (which we’ll normally charge using electricity from our PV array), so why install a second battery system that will only get used during occasional power outages. Our car can be our resilient power system.

Resilient transportation

Relative to gasoline shortages—and the inability to pump gas during outages—we can achieve greater resilience by reducing our dependence on the automobile. Through involvement in local planning efforts and by influencing transportation funding priorities, we can produce more pedestrian-friendly spaces that allow people to reach key services safely on foot or by bicycle.

If we create communities that can function reasonably well without automobiles during times of emergencies, those will be places where automobile use may also drop during normal times. These will be cleaner, safer, healthier places that move us toward sustainability.

Final thoughts

Resilient design is about all of this. It is an integrated process that will keep us safer and allow us to bounce back more quickly from whatever the next disturbance might be.

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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

8 Comments

  1. Right on as usual Alex. Keep up your
    important work. America is really starting
    to listen.

  2. Are you planning to connect the entire house or just a few necessary appliances (like your heat-pump) to the hybrid-car-powered inverter?

    And if the answer is “just a few necessary appliances”, then is that part of resilient design too? That is, to separate non-essential circuits from essential ones by having two fuse-boxes (or segregation by some other means)?

  3. Response to Richard,
    We plan to power only a few key loads, such as the refrigerator, some lighting circuits, and an outlet where we can plug in a radio. I don’t think we’ll include our mini-split heat pump or heat pump water heater in these critical loads. We’ll probably go with the hand pump for pumping water from our well (see earlier blog), but if we didn’t go that route water pumping would be a critical load that we would want to provide for (which might be too much for a plug-in hybrid)–still some research to do! So, yes, we plan to figure out critical loads when wiring the house.

  4. Great ideas here! In reading more about the history of refrigeration lately and what foods need those colder temperatures, I am starting to question whether refrigeration is actually crucial for a healthy diet and therefore for backup power. Maybe the freezer or if medications need the colder temperatures…A way to purify or boil water would be more important.

  5. I was surprised to read in the New York Times this morning (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/06/nyregion/gas-lines-ease-but-shortages-persist-in-ny-region.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y) that, as of yesterday (Monday, November 5th), 80% of gas stations north of Trenton in New Jersey remained closed. This, according to the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association. The fragility of our transportation fuel distribution and delivery network will be one of the long-term lessons of Sandy.

  6. Solar is one of my goals for my home in Northern Vermont. In researching the options, there appeared to be a false choice between a grid tie-in OR a battery bank. Each has a significant downside, the grid tie-in option would mean you didn’t have power when the grid goes down. The battery option means having a toxic product on your property. Reading the comments of a New York Times article on the power loss due to Hurricane Sandy, I learned of inverters. (The silver lining in this storm if more people learn about inverters.) Alex, I hope you’ll write more about inverters and how they work/are beneficial.

  7. Eileen, and Alex. I have been getting ready to install solar PVs on my house here in Scotts Valley Ca, and have been researching battery backup. Most PV installers know nothing about it, however I found one company that started out with off grid power systems, hydro, PV, and wind. They only got into grid-tie latter. The company, OutBack, has several inverter systems that can interface with the grid, (grid-tie), backup power, (battery), and control generators. Their “
    FLEXpower
    ” systems contain all the inverters, AC and DC breaker panels, charge controllers, and generator controller on one board. It looks like a very clean setup. Cost is reasonable $3-5k, and no I have no connection with them : ).

  8. Seeing this first hand in NYC it is incredible how fragile our system is here. I was lucky to not have my power effected or endure flood damage but the devastation is mind boggling. Surreal in a way that I have not stepped into any of the areas affected despite living here. I’m just as disconnected as anyone else in the country scrolling through photos and watching it on tv. Business goes on as usual and we have yet to make any headway to dealing with our incredibly fragile infrastructure. As sad as the horrible events that have unfolded in the last weeks with Newtown. I feel the eyes of the nation have shifted focus again. We need to make cities, especially cities that are the “heart” of the nation function in a more resilient way. So many urban farms got washed out and destroyed. So many people lost homes built in unsafe areas. Subways and gas weren’t functioning. Something needs to get done. If they can build multi million high line parks, rebuild at the Twin Towers, NYC needs to build for a sustainable and resilient future

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