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Hurricane Sandy demonstrated the vulnerability of our dependence on automobiles; we need to become a lot more resilient.

Gas line in Woodbridge, New Jersey on November 1st. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: AP

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 last week.

The secondary, lingering effects might not be as dramatic, but they are nonetheless highly significant. And they demonstrate, ever so clearly, our need for greater resilience. As of late-afternoon Sunday, November 4th, there were still 1.8 million customers without power, the vast majority of them in New York and New Jersey. That’s down from 8.5 million without power at the peak, but it still includes almost a quarter of New Jersey. In some places outages may last for weeks.

Outages in August in New Jersey aren’t so bad—there might be some discomfort from the heat, but few at real risk of safety—but with temperatures dropping into the 30s early this week, power outages become quite serious. The vast majority of our heating systems require electricity to operate—for the fans, pumps, and controls—though there are some exceptions.

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

Power outages and gas stations

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

As we learned in New Jersey and Long Island, without power most gas stations can’t operate. The American Automobile Association estimated on Thursday, November 1st, that 60% of service stations in New Jersey and 70% on Long Island were closed because they don’t have power to pump fuel. Only 23% of New Jersey service stations were still without power by Sunday morning, but lines persisted in many areas.

There were also actual fuel shortages, which contributed to the problems. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that 13 of the region’s 33 fuel terminals were closed as a result of the storm, along with two major gasoline pipelines serving the area.

Without gasoline, we can’t run our cars. But those shortages also meant that homeowners with smaller, gasoline-powered generators were 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. This is a familiar refrain of mine.

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.

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

A mobile generator and battery bank

With the net-zero-energy house my wife and I are currently building (rebuilding) in Dummerston, 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, though the sun may be 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.

Reducing dependence on cars

Relative to gasoline shortages and the inability to pump gas during outages, we can achieve greater resilience by reducing our dependence on the automobile. This isn’t a quick fix, but 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.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also recently created the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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Comments

1 Plug-in car as resilient power system posted by Rachel White on 11/09/2012 at 09:10 am

Alex,

Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post on resilience. I truly hope that Sandy serves as the final wake-up call we need to to make changes to our building practices and policies that will enable us to keep buildings livable in the event of natural disasters.

I'm curious about your plan to use your car to power your house. First, can you provide more information about the inverter (who makes it, where/how to purchase it, how much it would add to the cost of a pv system)? Second, are there any conditions under which your plan may not work (for example, if the sun doesn't shine for several days)? Put differently how much more likely do you think it is that you'd be able to keep your home habitable than someone who relies on a gas generator would? And what about someone who relies on a natural gas generator?

Thanks,

Rachel

 

2 Natural Gas is Also Vulnerable posted by Robert Riversong on 11/09/2012 at 11:23 am

Rachel,

A growing number of natural gas pumping stations require electricity to operate, and so that system may be increasingly vulnerable to power outages. A more secure fuel source for a back-up generator would be propane with a large enough tank to operate for days or weeks.


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