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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.