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Apply Disaster 4Rs to New Orleans

image credit: Footprint Project (https://www.footprintproject.org/)
Adam Siegel's picture
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Adam Siegel is an entrepreneurial analyst working at the intersection of energy, climate, national security, and business affairs. He has worked with/for government agencies, think tanks...

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When it comes to the post disaster space, a major ‘lesson’ from the 1980s and 1990s U.S. military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations is that effectiveness (protecting lives and property, reducing future risks, efficient resource use) requires coordination across organizations and coordination across phases.

By ‘phases’, these can be summarized as the Three Rs:

  • Relief: Life saving and getting minimal functions going for preserving life and reducing damage risks.
  • Recovery: Help society move into a functioning stage so that people don’t need to leave and outside assistance can be reduced.
  • Reconstruction: Measures to boost economic and social strength to pre-disaster levels (or, even better, better than pre-disaster).

In terms of efficiency resources use and increasing the odds for a successful outcome (which includes a lesser likelihood of having to do another relief operation tomorrow), integrating across these phases as much as (reasonably) possible is key.  If one can do something in “relief” that  contributes to “recovery” and is lays foundations for “reconstruction”, it is like getting a triple play.

For example, think housing. Tarps and tents are great for immediate shelter – fantastic for relief, marginal for recovery, and perhaps even negative for reconstruction. Having a container housing unit, like the US and allied militaries have used in places like Bosnia-i-Herzegovina and Iraq, blends from relief (quickly on site, quick to install) into recovery (housing elements that can stay around awhile). Deploying such ‘container’ units with plans and ways to incorporate into rebuilt infrastructure with (let’s say) high-wind and earthquake resistance takes that ‘shelter’ investment into a triple-whammy solution.

Now, a container is more expensive than a tent — but that is a lasting investment rather than a (hopefully very) temporary path to the problem. A less expensive option comes from leveraging disaster-focused architectural options that can put local labor to work and leverage local materials to have permanent structures up in a day with about the same amount of transported in materials and total financial cost as occurs with a tent (and far less than a container).  And, many such disaster architecture options will be less likely to suffer damage in the next disaster.

That lead to a fourth R: Resiliency: if that measure helps contributes to the potential for reducing future risks, we could hit a grand slam.

Distributed renewable energy is the blaring example of how to integrate across Disaster’s 4Rs  As the grid gets knocked down, in places around the world, the diesel generators kick in and disaster relief organizations send in even more generators. That translates into high-cost and high-pollution demand for diesel fuel — which, by the way, undermines the Three Rs through resource demands (transportation of that diesel fuel that conflicts with other demands on the logistics’ system and, of course, the cost of fuel).  With the price revolution in renewables (especially, in this context, solar photovoltaiics and associated systems), the costs of going ‘green’ in the disaster relief are lower than polluting diesel generators. The clean-energy option is price-advantaged.

And, unlike the diesel generator, it is quite straightforward to integrate a solar system across the 4Rs. Deploying distributed systems that have the ability to grid-connect become, as the grid reestablishes itself, part of the grid system – generating electricity throughout all phases and providing assurance of (at least limited) electrical services in the face of the next disaster.

And, also unlike the diesel generators, such renewable energy systems boost economic prospects in the recovery and reconstruction phases: free electrons from the sun not only save money compared to imported diesel, they also don’t contribute to transportation bottlenecks.

Hurricane Ida has seriously hit the Louisiana (especially New Orlean's) electrical system, with a million(+) people without power. Generators and diesel fuel for generators are almost certainly a major element of early relief deliveries.  Solar panels, however, do not appear to be a major element in US government relief efforts. (There are non-profits who are doing this. For example, prior to Ida's landfall, the Footprint Project had "four solar trailers and 60 portable battery packs staged in Nashville to respond in the aftermath of the hurricane.)

Hurricane Ida's impact on the Gulf Coast is serious – in the New Orleans' area, initial reporting suggests that there is not a single sector, not a single community without major (even crippling) damage. On some New Orleans' blocks, the only lights on are private homes with solar panels and batteries. (Note, an Entergy methane gas peak power plant that was justified on the basis of being able to handle emergencies like this is currently offline (due to T&D disruption) providing another example of how fossil fuel plants aren't necessarily reliable amid disaster even as their pollution worsens future disaster risks.) Energy is critical to the 3Rs across all sectors. Looking at New Orlean’s electricity situation, any honest analysis would conclude (differing, of course, as to specifics designs, how much, ..) that a rapid deployment of micro-grid solar would prove a 4R grand slam.

For US disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to update its approaches — clean energy systems need to be an ever-growing part of the ‘fly away’ kit for helping get emergency power to communities blacked-out by disasters (like New York/New Jersey post Sandy, Puerto Rico post-Maria, fire-ravaged Western communities, Gulf Coast post Ida).  And, the US government requires an integrated approach to this so the ‘fly-away’ solar is done in a way that enables rapid creation of renewable-powered micro-grids, ready to be hooked into a reestablished grid, to address relief that facilities recovery and contributes to reconstruction.   And, the installations should proceed down a path so that the next time a climate-enhanced disaster hits the community, the solar keeps the lights on and lowers the costs/challenges of that next disaster’s 3Rs … truly a grand slam payoff.

NOTE: This post is a long-running (a 2017 version re Puerto Rico post Maria) public service message (from me and others) about the value and power of integrating clean-energy into disaster relief. (Similarly, see the draft Continuity of Community Power Act from 15 years ago to improve resiliency in the face of disasters like Ida.) This message is more truthful with every passing day due to increased availability, quality, resiliency value, and affordability of clean-energy solutions along with ever-greater clarity of climate chaos risks.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 2, 2021

Is there an example of a major storm recovery in the power industry that showed the best protocols and lessons learned that you've seen? 

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