Opinion: What Hurricane Sandy Should Have Taught Us
Surviving a superstorm safely, with no loss of power, heat, and light, is within our abilities.
[R. William Potter is a partner in Potter & Dickson, a Princeton-based law firm. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the firm or of any client.]
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.
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