New York Times; Energy Section, By ANDREW C. REVKIN |
As New York City and other communities buffeted, flooded or darkened by the remains of Hurricane Sandy consider steps beyond the immediate recovery, officials, business owners and residents would be wise to spend time examining places where the power did not fail. That’s the essence of the approach to post-disaster review suggested last week by the meteorologist William Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society.
If they do, they’ll realize that there’s a reliable energy grid in much of the region — composed of natural gas lines — that parallels the one using wires to carry electricity. This separate energy system allows businesses to produce electricity themselves in small, highly efficient gas-powered generators at their facilities (and cut urban air pollution and greenhouse gases at the same time). This gas grid helped at least two large energy users — New York University and Co-op City (a vast high-rise housing complex in the Bronx) — stay warm and bright because, to a significant extent, they can generate their own electricity and heat.
Matthew Wald, in a Green Blog post today, nicely explains the success at N.Y.U., which went into “island mode,” in the words of one university official:
When much of Manhattan south of Midtown was blacked out, the lights were on at most of New York University, as was the heat and hot water. As I wrote in January 2011, N.Y.U. installed a small network of its own, burning natural gas in a unit that not only made electricity but also delivered the heat that would otherwise go to waste for use in heating and cooling. That process is known as cogeneration.
“Our cogen is up and running,” said John J. Bradley, the university’s assistant vice president for sustainability, energy and technical services, said last week. The system does not cover the entire campus but rather all of the larger buildings and the core of the Washington Square campus….
Of course, the failure of a backup generator at N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center drew far more attention. The hospital had to evacuate all of its patients after Hurricane Sandy made landfall a week ago, and Langone drew some criticism for not moving them out beforehand.
The university’s impetus for installing the cogeneration network was to save money and reduce its carbon footprint, but a side benefit is reliability.
In two posts in the last few days on Forbes.com, William Pentland, a writer who is also involved in a business developing such combined heat and power systems (he declares this interest up front), described the Co-op City storm response and, more generally, the merits of the gas distribution system as a means to creating a robust, distributed electricity supply:
Today’s electric grid was not designed to survive strong winds, storm surges, falling trees and flying debris and seems ludicrously inadequate for the demands of America’s increasingly digital and connected economy. The costs of hardening the electric grid will be vast. One widely cited study by the Brattle Group estimated that the electric utility industry will need to invest a $1.5 trillion to $2.0 trillion in infrastructure upgrades by 2030.
Despite spending epic sums of money on the so-called “smart grid,” the electric power grid seems as stupid as it was before spending billions in federal stimulus dollars.
Why throw good money after bad if we have a compelling alternative? And make no mistake about it, we have a compelling alternative to the conventional electric grid. It is commonly called the North American natural gas infrastructure.
I was in an e-mail conversation over the weekend with Pentland and Thomas G. Bourgeois, the deputy director of Pace University’s Energy and Climate Center, who’s a big fan of cogeneration of both heat and electricity at sites where it is used. He noted other instances around the region affected by the intense storm where so-called “combined heat and power” units kept lights on (I’ve cleaned up some e-mail shorthand):
One Penn Plaza’s co-generation system kept running. Princeton powered dorms and preserved research facilities, whereas N.Y.U.’s research center, served with emergency generators, suffered inestimable losses [read “Hurricane Sandy’s Lesser-Known Victims: Lab Rats“].
Next Friday New York City kicks off their 80 x 50 process [a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050] . We need a new vision of the electric generation, transmission and distribution system rather than one that moves electricity generated at remote locations, arriving at the point of end use… with a loss of 67 percent of otherwise valuable thermal energy. We need some pilots of operating micro-grids and district systems with combined heat and power that ought to represent the energy system of the future. Go beyond thinking of individual building efficiency to zero-energy blocks or neighborhoods. A vision of optimally creating a suite of resources, Efficiency, photovoltaics, clean distributed generation, demand response, storage, all managed in synch with the larger transmission and distribution system.
As I was mulling this over, I had two thoughts. One was that this vision of a resilient urban energy system integrating existing natural gas distribution lines could easily integrate sources of renewably generated electricity, as well — for instance, from rooftop solar panels in the boroughs where they make sense. I asked Bourgeois if that made sense to him.
He said yes, emphatically.
Bourgeois is on the run, like lots of people right now, so his full reply, as he explained apologetically, is somewhat “stream of consciousness.” But, to me, it’s worth reading in full. I’ve posted it as a standalone Slideshare document: “A Systems Approach to Resilient and Sustainable Urban Energy Supply.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had already expressed strong support for expanding natural gas supplies to the city, mainly to reduce the use of heavy oil in heating. (Read this report on natural gas and city air pollution prepared for the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability for more.)
Of course, as I’ve written repeatedly, natural gas should be harvested responsibly. And urban gas lines and the larger pipelines from national supplies to New York City need to be carefully built and maintained. [*There were natural gas leaks in some flooded areas in the aftermath of the storm, and some coastal communities saw gas distribution systems disrupted.]
But given the role natural gas played in keeping the lights on in otherwise darkened parts of the city after this storm, it’s clear that this resource can play an important part in building a robust, resilient and flexible electricity and energy grid for the city and region.