Quake shows need for a resilient energy infrastructure

My kindergarten memories of the Loma Prieta earthquake are of my father being stranded across the Bay in San Francisco, a city on fire.  This past weekend’s 6.0 earthquake in Napa is the closest we have come in recent years to that 1989 quake.  Exhausted after a long day of moving, I didn’t actually wake up during the shaking, but throughout the Bay Area folks jumped out of their beds as bottles crashed to the floor, furniture toppled, and buildings again went up in flames, likely triggered by damage to natural gas infrastructure.

Tens of thousands of homes lost power, hundreds reported gas leaks, and dozens of gas lines broke in the quake, forcefully reminding us about the vulnerability of not only our buildings but also of our energy infrastructure.  A poor foundation can lead one building to collapse and possibly damage neighboring buildings, but a fire from one source can spread widely and rapidly.

Groups throughout California are also working on grid resilience and climate adaptation, but these efforts should be better coordinated to align state-level energy and resiliency objectives.

PG&E has responded quickly, checking gas leaks and restoring power and gas to homes around the Bay. However, in addition to repairing energy infrastructure to its former condition, we need to focus on how to make it less vulnerable the next time a Napa, a Loma Prieta, or an even bigger earthquake hits our seismically active region.

California’s clean energy and climate goals offer an opportunity to make our energy system more resilient.

Technologies such as distributed rooftop solar and microgrids, and switching from fuels like gas to electricity, play an important role in reducing the emission of carbon and criteria air pollutants — and in keeping the lights on, and the fires out, during a disaster.

Renewable energy — an area in which our state has been a global leader — isn’t always enough. New Jersey, for example, has one of the highest adoption rates for distributed solar.  When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, the solar panels on thousands of rooftops throughout New Jersey should have provided electricity to homes and families, who were without grid power for weeks — but they didn’t. Unfortunately, most of these installations were constructed in such a way that they couldn’t “island” — they didn’t work unless connected to an operational grid. Across the state, lines stretched around the gas stations for blocks, where people filled their gas cans to power backyard diesel generators.  Some of this demand could have been alleviated if those homes could have actually used the solar on their rooftops.

There were exceptions, however, that pointed the way toward solutions that work. I was living in New Jersey at the time and experienced one first hand: I had electricity through the duration of Hurricane Sandy, because we were part of a university campus microgrid. New York State is currently changing the entire structure of its utility system to encourage distributed generation and is offering large financial incentives for microgrids and energy storage.  These developments help New York move towards its carbon emission targets as well as its resiliency goals.

Groups throughout California are also working on grid resilience and climate adaptation, but these efforts should be better coordinated to align state-level energy and resiliency objectives.  This month, the California Public Utilities Commission is asking utilities and other stakeholders to find better ways to incorporate and value distributed generation on the electric grid. This year also marks the beginning of the first energy storage procurement towards California’s 1.3 GW target.  These efforts are important steps towards creating a cleaner energy infrastructure, but these technologies will be underutilized unless the Commission and utilities coordinate their efforts to maximize resilience in the face of earthquakes and future changes to our climate.

We need to move quickly, so we are ready for the next earthquake and because it is easier to build energy infrastructure right the first time than change it later.

In the short term, increasing the amount of distributed generation, energy storage, and microgrids that can operate during full grid outages will improve grid resilience —  and additional efforts to locate these technologies at schools or community centers would give people a place to go during disasters.

From a climate standpoint, we should switch our natural gas heating and cooking to be powered by renewably generated electricity, a step that would also greatly minimize the likelihood of fire during earthquakes.

We can’t miss this opportunity to increase the grid’s resilience while we pursue California’s clean energy goals.

Ed’s Note: Dr. Elena Krieger is an engineer and the director of the renewable energy program at the science and policy organization, PSE Healthy Energy in Oakland, CA.

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