After the storm
As Washington wrangles over how much relief to provide the storm-ravaged East Coast, on-the-ground plans to rebuild green are taking hold. Clay Nesler discusses six lessons about resiliency to inform the process.
Superstorm Sandy forced many people to abandon the homes, offices, schools, churches and stores in their communities for extended periods of time to seek refuge. This extreme event placed a heavy burden on those affected and was a test of how well these buildings were designed and operated. The results were mixed.
As we reflect on how well our buildings and energy systems met the challenge and how we can do better moving forward, we should consider three overall objectives of building resilience: 1) minimizing damage to critical infrastructure during the event; 2) maintaining operational integrity and critical services immediately following the event; and 3) returning the building to normal, safe operating conditions as soon as possible. The following are six lessons that should help guide the redesign and reconstruction of our buildings, cities and energy infrastructure to be more resilient.
1. Reduce the initial damage to building systems and infrastructure.
Major electrical and mechanical equipment that provides critical services should be installed in locations unlikely to be flooded. This can be accomplished by installing equipment above ground level or providing underground storm water holding areas or diversion paths. Burying electrical lines underground is another practice to increase reliability and robustness. These practices need to make their way into building codes, as they are much more practical and cost-effective to implement during initial construction or reconstruction.
2. Improve the reliability of emergency backup systems.
Anecdotal estimates suggest that up to half of New York City buildings’ emergency backup generators failed to start when they were needed. This was due to a lack of maintenance and regular full-load testing. Many generators ran out of fuel in a day or less, as they were unable to receive supplemental fuel deliveries. The conventional practice of storing one day’s worth of fuel supply on-site needs to be reconsidered, given the increasing likelihood of severe storm events in the future.
3. Have buildings support limited critical services for extended periods of time.
After Superstorm Sandy, most grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were not operational because of safety systems installed to protect utility workers and grid integrity on restart. This was a surprise to many business- and homeowners who had invested in solar PV systems, expecting their buildings to be powered at least during daylight hours. Availability of even a limited amount of renewable energy, such as solar or microwind, combined with energy storage and a secure grid disconnect mechanism, would allow buildings to provide critical services over extended periods of time.