One Year After Sandy, We Need to Safeguard Our Energy Systems and Our Climate

The one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy brings back acute personal memories for me and my family, memories we will not soon forget. My elderly father-in-law was without power in Manhattan for almost a week. And to bring him food, we climbed up 26 flights in the dark. At my synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, I joined hundreds of volunteers making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for thousands of people hard-hit by the hurricane in other areas of Brooklyn.

Though Sandy left us and our home unscathed, so many others were far less lucky. The superstorm brought more than 100 deaths. More than 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. More than 2 million New Yorkers lost power and heat, many of them for extended periods of time and some of them for months. And the hardest hit neighborhoods in Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn are still recovering.

After Sandy, Manhattan below midtown was blacked out for almost a week. (Photo by Reeve Jolliffe.)

Suddenly, last October, just how vulnerable we all are to climate change became very real.

Now a year later, NRDC has identified the Top 10 post-Sandy priorities we must undertake in order to ensure that when we rebuild, we move forward, rather than repeat the past. Prime among these are the need to protect our critical energy infrastructure and distribution systems, our drinking water and our wastewater treatment facilities, our public transportation and our emergency response systems. Doing so can help us keep our lights on, our water safe to drink, our people mobile and our first responders’ accessible in the wake of another storm.

That our energy infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to climate change is something a recent U.S. Department of Energy report details as well. Already, DOE finds, high heat, water scarcity, storms, flooding and sea level rise have all resulted in power plant outages.

In the face of these realities, both New York State and New York City are proposing important strategies to improve our energy system’s resilience. From my perspective, the following are some of the most significant and promising:

  • Developing Long-Term Energy Resilience Plans. The state’s utilities should develop cost-effective system upgrade plans, incorporating climate risk assessments. Climate risks should also be incorporated into New York state energy and transmission system planning. 
  • Hardening existing energy infrastructure to withstand climate events. New York utilities should strengthen existing energy infrastructure over the short- and long-term. These efforts should protect key power plants, substations, and underground equipment from flooding and water damage; safeguard vulnerable overhead power lines against high winds and downed trees; and, put some power lines underground.
  • Reducing Demand For Energy. Rising temperatures will lead to higher peak electric demand, pushing our generation and distribution system to the breaking point. Energy efficiency is always the quickest, cleanest and most affordable solution to that problem. That’s why it’s crucial we beef up the state’s and the city’s already impressive efficiency goals, which sunset in 2015, and further promote demand-response programs, which pay large power users to reduce their consumption during peak periods. 
  • Increasing grid flexibility by encouraging clean, distributed generation and smart-grid investments. Today’s power system relies too heavily on central power plants, many of them aging. What we need is more dynamic and flexible system, one that allows better integration of clean energy and reduces outages during storms. Stronger incentives can increase the use of clean, distributed generation: smaller-scale, on-site systems using technologies such as solar panels and fuel cells. For important community resources, policies should support microgrids, which are neighborhood-scale networks of distributed systems. 

After Sandy, solar charging stations helped communities without power. With the right policies in place, electric vehicles and battery storage systems can play a similar role. Finally, greater deployment of smarter grid technologies can help utilities identify, locate and solve electric grid problems more quickly.

  • Diversifying Energy Resources, with a Focus on Renewable Energy. To reduce the likelihood of massive system failure and to increase resilience, New York City wisely plans to help diversify, clean up and improve its power supply. One important opportunity here is a New York Power Authority and Con Edison proposal to develop an offshore wind project off the Far Rockaway peninsula – building a major source of clean power just miles from New York City and Long Island.

Most important of all, we must tackle the root cause of climate change where it starts—especially at power plants. Here, there’s been some important progress. President Obama’s ambitious climate protection plan will, for the first time, require carbon limits for new and existing power plants. A forward-looking plan from Governor Cuomo, expected to take effect this January, will further cut carbon from regional power plants, under the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Still, there’s much more the state can do to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy. 

The one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy gives us much to reflect upon. Like other tragic but preventable events of the past, the best way to remember is to draw the right lessons. By making New York’s energy systems stronger and more resilient—and by tackling the root cause of climate change with the right solutions—we can better protect ourselves and build a better New York.