Astronaut Rickey Arnold saw Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station. (2018 photo via NASA)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.
With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.
I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.
For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)
Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.
After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.
The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.
And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.
The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.
Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.
A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.
The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.
The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.
But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.
Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.
Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.
More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”
The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.
That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the people who need it most. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.
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