Hurricane Harvey drenched Texas in August, Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and Florida during September, and in October the United States also had major fire storms that burned in Northern California. As usual, the media fills their audience with scenes of flooded streets, shelters crowded with people, and shows devastation to people, places, and things. Where is this all going? “We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbot, when asked what the future of storms for cities looks like it will be in years to come.
Smart cities and the keys are held not by positions of politics, as they used to be in the past, in the years to come those will be held by those with the ability to advance plan for and swiftly recover. On a practical level this often has ties to restoring electricity for those who’ve lost it are the citizens of the smart cities. Without power efforts to return to normal are slow and often fail to deliver. Electricity loss makes it impossible for those hit by a storm to normalize and in turn their economic occupations are also put at risk so this is an essential element of resiliency planning and ensuring sustainable futures for those residing in cities.
The primary sustainability problem is how to best plan for a disaster. Often the focus is on recovery only and in the best of circumstances there are resources allocated to solve challenges caused by disasters, figuring how to best shelter people, fix power outages, etc.. These are reactive in nature and for some time now the trend has been to be proactive. This is what a smart cities needs to do and in regards to electricity this means establishing grid resiliency is the place to start. Creating infrastructure and deploying technology solutions in advance of pending storms or disasters assures optimal functioning of critical infrastructure and enables the city to recover quickly.
TECHNOLOGY ELEMENTS IN GRID RESILIENCY MASTER PLANS:
- Self-Healing Grids
- Identifies failing sections of the electric network, isolates, and reroutes power
- Sensors and “Smart Switches”
- Monitors the grid system and redirects power where needs are optimal
- Smaller power systems that integrate with the grid or work independently
Technologies such as these involve many stakeholders – municipal planners, electricity utilities, technology providers, manufacturers of smart grid equipment, and of course the consumers or users of the electricity (just to name a few). Large “top down” and master planned systems and their distribution approach the challenges in a way that causes different players to be involved coming from one direction while microgrids work from the opposite direction – consumers to utility as opposed to utility to consumers. This is a fundamental issue in advance that a smart city needs to accommodate for and that stakeholder process and engagement in itself demonstrates the core value of the smart city. The technology and the outcomes are secondary, albeit critical.
In establishing a smart city that is prepared to weather a storm in a sustainable way the first thing that needs to be done is develop a feasibility plan, especially when opting to incorporate microgrid technologies. The next most important thing to do is establish areas of highest priority for power need (hospitals, fire departments, shelters, etc). This is not simple nor trivial in importance. For example, when Hurricane Sandy impacted New York City one community that was lucky and to not become devastated was the Hunts Point Market area, in the Bronx. This area is home to one of the largest food distribution centers in the world and yet there is no microgrid and integrated planning in place to ensure it remains without fault.
In fact, to further this concern, Hunts Point is the gateway to nearly 60% of New York City’s food. Had electricity been cut off, tons of food would have spoiled, distribution would have been crippled, and millions could have gone hungry. Establishing feasibility is critical and defining, agreeing, and engaging in priorities with public involvement and the stakeholders is needed well in advance. Also, even if a smart city can decide on priorities for power requirements it doesn’t mean it can address the issues of financing. Public-private operations in themselves are significantly complex to negotiate and there is a massive difference in solutions solely run through the utility or a private enterprise endeavor. In fact, more critical to this is the policy and regulation matters that drive these concerns for even those vary greatly throughout the United States and the pricing models established for ratepayers are far from uniform. Everywhere it makes sense for a city to ponder these matters and aspire to smart but when considering the use of modern technologies to weather the storms that assuredly to come it means there is no better time than the present to get plans in order.