Lessons from Irma and Harvey: Time for Transition to Resilient Renewable-Energy Microgrids

resilient microgrids

Hurricane Irma raging over the Atlantic

The human and economic toll of these storms should be the wake-up call that pushes the rest of the country — and the world — to take action before the next disaster strikes.

Like most Americans, I spent the weekend obsessively watching weather reports from Florida. I had started writing this post last week, wanting to put into writing some thoughts about microgrid lessons to be learned from Harvey’s impact, which included the 300,000 people who lost power in that Texas storm.  As I write this today, Irma is wreaking havoc on Florida, knocking out the grid for 6 million customers in Florida and 1 million in Georgia and relegating Harvey — and my previous blog post — to just the prologue in the ongoing story of the 2017 hurricane season.

The theme of this story is that our out-of-date fossil-fuel-based infrastructure is failing a world where climate change is bringing more frequent, more extreme, more intense weather to the planet. And the lesson, if we are smart enough to learn it, is that as long as we’re dependent on fossil fuels, these weather events and other related disasters will wreak long-lasting havoc on human lives, the economy, and on the environment. Irma and Harvey are telling the world the time for resilient energy solutions is now, and the ‘distributed energy future’  must come much sooner than planned.

As we recently reported, the move to distributed, renewable power is inevitable but not imminent. The U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vision of the Future Grid, the country must see a “significant scale-up of clean energy” including distributed generation, microgrids, energy storage, decentralized control, reliability, and resilience. Harvey, Irma, and other weather events this summer that have impacted millions around the world prove that it’s time to get serious about transitioning to clean distributed energy on a global scale.

In the Northeast, Sandy Moved States Toward Resilient Solutions

After Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast United States in 2005, the hardest hit states saw firsthand what their shortcomings were for disaster preparedness. Since then, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have been aggressively pursuing a more resilient energy future. Texas and Florida will have to rebuild, and will presumably rebuild a more modern infrastructure that includes microgrids and at least some transition to distributed clean-energy sources. Perhaps other regions should do the same rather than waiting to see what happens without distributed energy before investing in it. We can’t afford not to make the investment. We in this sector must be at the forefront of creative solutions for microgrid and distributed energy design in different locales under different disaster scenarios. We must ask the right questions, then answer them.

resilient microgrids

Crews cleaning up debris following Hurricane Harvey.

This summer’s disasters need to change our conversation around resilience. Microgrids kept the lights on at NYU during Sandy, where wind brought down power lines. Flooding from Harvey and Irma, on the other hand, submerged transformers and generators. We need to be talking not just about microgrid resilience but about what constitutes resilience where, and how to create the right systems for possible disasters to come. We must create microgrids that limit the impact of natural disasters and help those who are affected recover quickly. And we must keep stressing that distributed renewable energy not only provides resilience in the face of climate change, it’s actually the antidote for climate change.


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To become part of the conversation, join us next week in Denver, Colorado, for the 5th Annual HOMER International Microgrid Conference (HIMC2017).

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