Opinion: What Hurricane Sandy Should Have Taught Us

R. William Potter | November 15, 2012 | Opinion, Sandy
Surviving a superstorm safely, with no loss of power, heat, and light, is within our abilities

Even as tens of thousands of people are still without power, it is not too soon to begin assessing the lessons we should learn from Hurricane Sandy.

And there are enough lessons to occupy state policymakers into next spring.

Lesson No. 1: There can’t be too many repair crews and other first responders on hand to combat massive power outages. For that to happen, however, public utilities need assurances that those cost will be quickly recovered in rates. Otherwise, they will have scant incentive to maintain a sufficient reserve of manpower before the next hurricane.

Incidentally, let us pause to praise the heroic efforts of utility linemen and emergency crews — many from as far away as Florida and Alabama. They worked round the clock, cutting through fallen trees and repairing downed power lines in weather that kept the rest of us shivering indoors.

The Legislature should honor these men and women in their yellow slickers and hardhats. They remind us that technology, however advanced, is never a complete substitute for a dedicated workforce at the ready.

Lesson No. 2: We need to build more power plants closer to where people live and work, cutting down the distance between production and consumption. The classic utility grid relies heavily on a small number of really big generators in remote locations connected to where people live and work by a latticework of power lines that are vulnerable to extreme weather. While we can ill afford to do without distant power sources, we need a better balance between near and far.

This does not mean siting nuclear power plants on vacant lots in your town or mine. By their nature, nukes can only be remotely located. The risk of a nuclear accident may be acceptably small, but the consequences are too great to ignore.

Similarly, coal-burning power plants are suited only to distant locations due to an alphabet soup of pollutants — despite the most stringent pollution controls and safeguards.

What is the answer? A combination of something old and something new. Cogeneration systems — the “something old” — are part of the answer. They literally co-generate electricity and heating or cooling from one fuel source for their onsite customers.

Cogeneration was all the rage for much of the 1980s and 1990s, before falling into disfavor. They have risen once more with a new moniker: “combined heat and power”, or CHP.

CHP systems can be small enough to fit in the basement of a hospital, or big enough to power a college campus. (Princeton’s cogen unit spared its campus from any loss of heat or light while Sandy raged.) Because CHP deployments produce steam heat or cooling plus electricity, they need to be close to their thermal customers.

As to the “something new,” solar photovoltaic (or PV) is ideal for siting within clusters of utility customer structures, thus reducing — if not eliminating — the need for power lines connected to a weather-threatened grid.

Indeed, most solar systems are located literally on top of a customer’s home, business, school, parking lot, and so forth. To be sure, not much — if any — solar power is generated during a hurricane. But when the sun comes out the next day, the solar PV system (assuming it survives the storm as most clearly did) starts generating kilowatt hours for otherwise-beleaguered homeowners.

Lesson No. 3: It’s time to go underground: Buried wires are the safest delivery systems for electric power. The most vulnerable are overhead lines dangling next to tree limbs, just waiting for the wind to blow too hard.

“Undergrounding ” may explain why downtown Princeton did not lose power at any time during Hurricane Sandy or last year during Hurricane Irene — despite the upended trees just a few blocks from Nassau Street. Meanwhile, there was only darkness and cold wherever overhead lines attached to homes, schools, or businesses.

So why aren’t all electric lines buried? Simply stated, the direct cost is enormous. But so are the societal costs of blackouts. Let’s face it, electricity is an essential public good, a key necessity of modern life. We can’t live, at least for very long, without it. As such, we should be willing to pay the price for secure, reliable electric power.

Clearly, not every house or building can have its wires undergrounded overnight or anytime soon. But the aftermath of Sandy may tell us how to prioritize, starting with the most vulnerable areas.

Most importantly, credible policies are needed to incentivize electric utilities to embrace the task of protecting their customers from what can be life-threatening power outages caused by all-to-predictable stormy weather. This situation is bound to increase in frequency and intensity , now that global warming is demonstrably upon us.