Archive for October, 2008

Post-Storm Lessons in Energy Planning (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 2)

Posted on October 13, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Today marks the one month anniversary of Hurricane Ike. In Houston, the tree canopy is noticeably thinner, tarps still cover many roofs, and certain city services have been suspended to enable workers to focus on debris collection. However, life for most in this city is returning to normal. Galveston is another story altogether. To paraphrase an article in Sunday’s edition of the Galveston County Daily News, residents are experiencing a “new normal,” that is, something quite different than before. With only 60% of that city’s population back on the island, uncertainty about the future and an incomplete understanding of what just happened are the prevailing moods.

Over the past month, I’ve found myself thinking quite often about how the bonds of modern civilization are more fragile than I had suspected, and how the notion of sustainability fits into the equation. The hurricane in the financial markets has confirmed this sense of the society’s thin veneer, but I’ll focus my comments on meteorological hurricanes, not economic ones. I have identified a few lessons from Rice’s experience with Hurricane Ike that will hopefully enable other campus sustainability professionals to better plan for the provision of utilities and supporting infrastructure on their campuses, especially in the event of disasters.

At Rice, our campus imports both electricity and natural gas, the latter of which fires a combined heat and power system that produces electricity and steam. On a typical day, our central plant operators can vary the mix of inputs to produce our campus utilities, depending upon a variety of conditions including the cost of each source. During a crisis event when electricity is not available from the power grid, we are able to switch entirely to natural gas to provide heating, cooling, and power for our designated essential facilities on campus. The first lesson is that diverse energy systems create operating options and reduce the risk of disruption. Monocultures are vulnerable to exogenous shocks; variation reduces the susceptibility to catastrophic failure.

I should point out that it’s not just the multiple inputs that make the system diverse. At my home, I also import electricity and natural gas. The difference is that I cannot switch between sources to meet my basic needs. Natural gas doesn’t help me with refrigeration or cooling or lighting or power. If I owned a natural gas outdoor grill, I would at least be able to cook using a source other than my electric stove and oven (albeit this still requires different hardware – a grill). The fact is, natural gas only provides my home with hot water and heat, and the furnace will not operate without electricity. Despite the two energy sources, what I really have are two energy monocultures.

Energy system diversity is not enough, as Rice learned during the storm. The second lesson is that systems intersect. Rice’s energy system requires water to supply boilers, chillers, and the cooling tower. Without a reliable supply of water, our energy system cannot function indefinitely.

Rice purchases most of its water supply from the City of Houston, but we also have a water well on campus that in any given year meets up to 20% of our water needs. During an emergency, we can switch entirely to well water, an important illustration of the benefits of system diversity. However, during the storm, a power surge burned-out the motor of the pump on the water well, leaving Rice dependent upon City water. When the City’s pumping station at the Trinity River went down, water pressure dropped across Houston, threatening the availability of water and by extension energy on campus. The third lesson is that despite system diversity, the failure of a single component can cause the entire system – or several systems – to crash. Knowing what those weak points are, and understanding the conditions under which they might fail, will enable planning for a stronger system.

As an aside, with the threat of outages of both water and energy, and a replacement pump nowhere to be found, a member of Rice’s crisis management team contacted two alums in the oil services industry for help. They located a pump in Tennessee and arranged for it to be transported to Houston. Rice police met the delivery truck in Louisiana and provided an escort into Houston, and the pump was installed in just enough time to keep the campus energy system from crashing.

Rice admittedly has a level of independence from “the grid” that most of us do not enjoy at our homes. There are of course differing scales of energy independence. In political discussions, energy independence tends to mean not relying upon petro-dictators for oil. This kind of energy independence does little for reducing the energy monocultures that most of us live in today. In a previous post, I discussed the need to diversify our energy inputs while reducing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system. The past month has taught me a fourth lesson, which is the need to drive energy independence to a localized level, especially for certain critical facilities.

I will illustrate the importance of this fourth lesson by providing an example of the first three. From a transportation perspective, most of Houston is a monoculture. In 1991, Joel Garreau wrote in Edge City: Life on the New Frontier that traveling around Houston without a car is like traveling around Venice without a boat. This over-reliance upon the automobile makes mobility in Houston especially vulnerable to exogenous shocks, such as hurricanes (a violation of lesson one). Without the reliable flow of gasoline, Houston shuts down. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, Houston faced a gasoline shortage. Many stations had run dry prior to the storm as motorists topped-off their tanks, but there’s more to the story. As we learned from lesson two, systems intersect. Gas stations need electricity, not just gasoline. Even those stations with gas in their underground storage tanks could not sell it because the pumps could not operate without electricity. The gas pumps were the critical component from lesson three that caused an entire system – several systems, actually – to crash. Until electricity was restored, a process that took many days and even weeks, gas stations were powerless to feed Houston’s gasoline-dependent transportation system.

Certainly facilities like hospitals are designed with a high degree of energy independence, and as I’ve discussed, our campus can function somewhat independently as well. But what about grocery stores and gas stations and banks? These are essential too. An entire gas station need not be able to function in the event of a power outage: just the pumps. An attendant could accept cash transactions and record credit card purchases through imprints. Had these pumps been designed to operate independent of the broader electrical grid, life in Houston would have recovered far more quickly than it did.

A more sustainable society in my view is one with a degree of decentralization and diversity that makes us less vulnerable to extreme events, which we are sure to see more of as our climate continues to change and as energy supplies tighten. For those planning in a campus environment, this suggests thinking about energy with some additional criteria in mind: avoiding monocultures, understanding where and how systems intersect, identifying critical points where failure can occur, and striving for localized energy independence. Many of us dream about being “off the grid” – able to meet our needs through renewable energy and sustainable water strategies on our own sites without depending upon the broader utility infrastructure and its inputs. But failure to take these lessons into account could mean that we’re “off the grid” in a different sense. That is, powerless.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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