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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Oil on the Brain

Posted on August 19, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Summer is a time for vacations and reading lists. Certainly if you live in a hot and humid climate as I do (Houston), the thought of not escaping at least for a few days with a pile of books to a place with cool breezes would be soul-crushing. This summer, one of the stops on my itinerary was Portland, Oregon, a city that offers not only one of the best book stores in the world – Powell’s Books – but also the chance to experience lows in the 50s without having to wait until Halloween.

On the flight back to Houston, which clocks in at four hours on a good day (and this was not to be a good day), I finally admitted to myself that I have a new obsession. My reading on the flight was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a grim portrait of the hardships that modern civilization might face as production rates for fossil fuels enter a sharp decline “sooner than we think.” I had just finished reading his novel World Made By Hand, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction created as an outgrowth of The Long Emergency. In my carry-on bag were several purchases from Powell’s, including Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which quite literally envisions the Earth without humans; Oil, Upton Sinclair’s tale of social injustice and corruption in the early years of the oil industry in southern California that inspired the recent movie There Will Be Blood; and finally the journalistic wide-angle snapshot of the petroleum supply chain that gives title to my new obsession, Lisa Margonelli’s Oil On the Brain. Yes, I have oil on the brain, and it seems to be sticking to all of my thoughts.

As our flight approached Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, we entered into a holding pattern above the city, waiting for an opening in the heavy thunderstorms that were drenching the city so that we could make our landing. After a short while, the pilot announced that the flight was being diverted to Beaumont, Texas, as we were almost out of fuel. I spent quite a bit of time chewing on the symbolism of running out of fuel above the world’s energy capital, Houston, and needing to top-off in the city whose Spindletop oil well gave birth to the modern petroleum industry, Beaumont. The question on my mind at that moment was how much longer will we as a society be able to figuratively top-off in Beaumont every time we need more fuel?

Rice’s late Nobel Laureate, Professor Richard Smalley, wrote in an article published in 2005 that “at some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of the century, the volume will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak.”[1] Earlier this summer, Houston energy investment banker Matthew R. Simmons, Chairman of Simmons & Company and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, told an audience in Maine that he believes that global oil production peaked in May 2005, which coincidentally was the exact month that his book was published. Simmons captures the gravity of this message by sharing a quote from a late Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai who observed “my grandfather rode on a camel, my father rode in a car, I ride in a jet, my children will ride in cars, and my grandchildren will ride on camels.”[2]

If only this were an oil problem, I might not be quite so worried. Automobile fleets can transition to hybrids, then plug-in hybrids, and finally to all-electric sources; natural materials can be employed as substitutes in the making of certain plastics; etc. However, our prospects for natural gas, coal, and even uranium are all troubling. Consider for a moment the fact that some experts believe that Chinese production of coal will peak in the middle of the next decade, followed by a sharp decline. What happens to a world economy that has exported its manufacturing infrastructure and acumen to a country that will soon have to rely heavily on coal imports in order to power its factories (remembering that shipping the coal requires oil, which will be about a decade post-peak by that point)?

Let me state the obvious by saying that the operating system of our society is fossil fuels. We already know what happens when this operating system crashes temporarily. In the fall of 2005, when my family and I joined 2.5 million of our fellow Houstonians attempting to flee then Category-5 Hurricane Rita in the largest urban evacuation in U.S. history, we collectively sucked gas pumps dry across virtually all of southeast Texas. Many of us lacked the fuel for the grueling bumper-to-bumper 24-hour drive to Dallas (a trip that usually takes 4 hours), and had to return to Houston, hoping that the storm would veer away at the last minute (it did, much to the chagrin of our neighboring cities to the east). We felt trapped and powerless. And who can forget how quickly New York City descended into chaos in 1977 during the famed blackout? While that electricity outage was not caused by a lack of fossil fuels, it does illustrate how an interruption in the fossil fuel operating system can trigger a social collapse. Fortunately, in both instances, the fossil fuel operating system was quickly rebooted, and modern life returned to normal. In the coming years, crashes may become more frequent, and reboots more challenging.

As a campus sustainability professional, I’ve been grappling (somewhat unsuccessfully) with how to prepare my campus for this changeover in operating systems. We know the fossil fuel operating system will eventually start crashing (perhaps sooner rather than later), but we also know that the upgrade, which I’ll call the renewable energy operating system, is still in development and not even close to being ready for a complete and economical replacement of the fossil fuel operating system at this time. So we’re in limbo, and we’re at risk.

This challenge is not as easy as just switching power purchases from coal to wind sources. Here in Texas, we have the option to choose our power provider, and thus the option to choose how our power is generated. But even if my university were to purchase only wind power, the actual electrons entering our campus grid would probably be from the nearby coal-fired power plant. In fact, despite being the national leader in wind power production, most of the Texas power mix is still generated from a blend of natural gas and coal-fired sources, along with some nuclear, and a 2-3% contribution from wind. As that fossil fuel operating system becomes unstable, the state’s entire power grid will be vulnerable. And I say the state’s grid because Texas for the most part is an island when it comes to the national power grid. What’s generated in Texas stays in Texas.

Thinking beyond the campus, I believe that broadly speaking we should be minimizing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system, diversifying our energy inputs so that the entire system does not crash when one source declines, developing our renewable energy operating system as quickly as possible, preparing for a rapid switch-over once the new operating system is ready to be launched, and where applicable designing for cross-compatibility of operating systems as a transitional strategy. If the decline of fossil fuels is gentle enough, and the development of renewable energy rapid enough, the modern world might not even take notice. However, if the converse is true, and if we have not appropriately re-organized our society and re-adjusted our lifestyles, we could be facing the end of modern life as we know it.

As our plane sat on the tarmac in Beaumont during our refueling stop, a violent storm cell moved across the airport, rocking our plane back and forth with high winds. As soon as the storm passed, the pilot was cleared for take-off, and subsequently flew right into the storm, resulting in the most harrowing ten minutes of in-flight turbulence that I have ever experienced before we finally reached the clearing skies above Houston. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the flight itself was a metaphor for the bumpy ride that we’re to encounter as we transition from our fossil fuel operating system to one based on renewable energy sources. Will we make it?

As if that flight didn’t provide enough symbolic fodder for my wandering mind, as we drove away from the airport we encountered a surprising message on an electronic highway message board on U.S. 59: “Tropical storm in Gulf: Fill-up gas tanks”. Oil on the brain indeed.

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

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