Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Pacific Northwest Should Promote Distributed Renewable Energy to Power Critical Infrastructure in the Event of a Natural Disaster

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney
Credit: NREL/City of Portland (2009)

Natural disasters have been getting a lot of press in the Pacific Northwest lately. Wildfires are currently blazing across the region, and a recent New Yorker article titled “The Really Big One” outlined how the Cascadia subduction zone is overdue for a massive earthquake that could devastate the coastal Northwest from northern California to British Columbia. This media coverage has collectively alerted area residents to the vulnerability of the region’s infrastructure—in the face of a large-scale natural disaster, transportation, water, and electric infrastructure throughout the Northwest could be substantially compromised for extended periods of time.

Our aging electrical infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes.  Utilities in Washington and California are currently refining strategies to protect transmission infrastructure from wildfires. Fires can damage power lines, leading to potentially widespread outages. With wildfires growing in number and intensity throughout the west, utilities are partnering with local, state, and federal agencies to prevent, detect, and battle wildfires that threaten the grid.

A high-magnitude earthquake presents an even greater threat to the region’s electrical system. According to the New Yorker article, the Pacific Northwest is more than 70 years overdue for an earthquake that will take down the electrical grid everywhere west of the Cascade mountain range. This means that major population centers, including Seattle and Portland, will lose power. While power lines will fall throughout the region, the damage will not be confined to transmission infrastructure. The earthquake will likely also destroy dams and natural gas pipelines, effectively cutting off the region’s power supply for an extended period of time.

Natural disaster preparedness campaigns often emphasize the importance of maintaining emergency supplies of food and water. However, the absence of electricity could arguably have a more significant impact on survival and recovery rates. Hospitals, emergency response centers, and communication infrastructure will require power, and damage to roads and bridges may limit access to diesel fuels needed to run back-up generators.  The Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission estimates that it will take between one and three months to restore electricity following a high-magnitude earthquake.

Distributed renewable energy and energy storage systems offer potential safeguards against disaster-related power outages. When distributed solar PV systems are paired with rechargeable battery arrays and specialized inverters, these systems are capable of providing back-up power during grid failures. To protect power access for critical emergency response facilities, states within the Cascadia subduction zone should provide funding to enable facilities such as hospitals and fire stations to install distributed generation and storage systems.  The Clean Energy Group’s Resilient Power report outlines similar resiliency efforts in states throughout the country, including a $30 million micro-grid demonstration project in California.

Residential homeowners can also install these micro-grid systems to preserve personal power supplies, though the initial capital costs of residential battery banks can be prohibitively high. One alternative to an expensive storage system is to install a grid-tied inverter with an emergency power supply feature. While these inverters do not allow a homeowner to power his or her entire house with solar power, they do enable grid-tied solar PV owners to access a limited amount of electricity during daylight hours.

State policymakers in the Pacific Northwest have limited to no control over whether and when a natural disaster will strike in the region. However, lawmakers do have the capacity to plan for and mitigate some of the damage caused by such an unpredictable event. Policymakers should seriously consider offering financing or other economic incentives to enable critical facilities to install renewable micro-grid systems to provide back-up power during emergencies. If and when a disaster hits, these advance preparations will be well worth the investment.


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