How Utilities Can Help Communities Build Economic Resilience to Disasters: Part II
Given the essential role of the power grid, electric utilities are in a unique position to lead disaster mitigation and preparedness. Alongside medical care, water, and food, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identifies access to energy as one of several community lifelines, which “are the most fundamental services in the community that, when stabilized, enable all other aspects of society to function.” This points to a vital and often unrecognized role of utilities in supporting economic resilience before, during, and after disasters. In particular, providing sustained access to energy can decrease the cascading social consequences that often drive a disaster’s negative economic impact.
Appreciating the role of utilities requires an understanding of economic resilience. In a disaster context, economic resilience refers to a household’s ability to sustain or restore an adequate financial condition during and after a disaster. The distribution of damages from a disaster concentrate losses, and when these losses overlap with existing social vulnerabilities, the decisive role of economic resilience is even more apparent. Determinants of resilience include emergency funds (pre-disaster savings), income, property ownership, insurance, and access to the social protection system. The more severe the shock, the more dependent households will be on savings, borrowing, and social protection systems. And the more vulnerable a household is economically, the greater the impact from these shocks.
When families lose access to energy, their access to food, water, adequate housing, and medical care can be jeopardized. In turn, families become increasingly reliant on savings, loans, or insurance to sustain their daily wellbeing. This disproportionately affects families of lower socioeconomic standing, a group that includes many minimum wage earners whose income is disrupted during disaster-related business closures.
These impacts are as variable as the disasters we face. There is a significant difference between a power outage that lasts a few hours compared to a few days or longer, especially when seasonality is considered. A multi-day power outage means household losses in frozen and refrigerated foods, or maintenance and repair costs from frozen pipes in the depths of winter or even the cost of finding shelter outside the home in extreme temperatures.
Aggregate indicators of economic performance like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not adequately capture these unexpected costs and the other economic ramifications of disasters. Ballooning disaster-related losses can be mitigated by directing more attention and investment towards mitigation and preparedness. Such an approach reduces the required spending in response and recovery. In the context of electric utilities, this type of preparedness begins long before the disaster strikes, at least in jurisdictions that recognize the value of community resilience.
In 2009, DSTAR, a consortium of North American electric utilities, commissioned a study of the best practices for utility storm response. They examined the practices, procedures, and experiences of U.S. utilities during major storm occurrences with the goal of understanding the effectiveness of different disaster management measures. Their key finding was that “storm response begins long before an event occurs and continues long after the worst is over.” The study identified infrastructure hardening measures to be effective in mitigating disaster impact. Such measures included tree trimming/vegetation management, system design changes, and maintenance activities such as pole inspection/replacement programs. Other effective measures identified include early warning and tracking systems and the utilization of data analytics for predicting damage.
Utilities are also developing new resilience capabilities in the form of microgrids. A microgrid is a local area energy system that can operate connected to the grid or in an islanded manner when planned or unplanned outages occur. Microgrids can control on-site generations, including distributed renewable energy resources. With the help of advanced controller systems, microgrids distribute power to critical infrastructures and aid in disaster mitigation.
Such grid investments reflect a wider shift in focus that emphasizes mitigation and disaster preparedness to improve community resilience and reduce loss of personal health, lives, and community assets.
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia Climate School, at Columbia University, and Chicago-based electric utility ComEd conducted an exercise to evaluate the impact of microgrids, which, if fully leveraged, were shown to be able to avoid adverse impacts typically experienced during a power outage, including health impacts on vulnerable populations. Since businesses within the microgrid footprint retain power, the economic impact on the livelihoods of the workforce is reduced, and community members remain able to access goods and services critical to their daily lives.
By reducing the severity and frequency of power outages, mitigation and preparedness measures improve a community’s ability to adapt, withstand, and recover from disasters. The capacity to maintain infrastructure and sustain service delivery has profound and additive effects on communities’ social, environmental, and economic resilience. Indeed, for societies that are looking to remedy historical injustices, emphasizing resilience for the most vulnerable in disastrous circumstances may be an important first step in building economic resilience for the whole community. This intersection will be explored further in other articles in this series.
Qëndresa Krasniqi is a Staff Associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, where she supports research activities related to resilience building, COVID-19, and climate change. She earned her Masters in Public Administration in Development Practice from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she focused on social protection and social safety nets and the role of socio-economic and racial inequities on global food & agriculture systems, food security, and access to health care services.
Ryan Burg is a Principal Business Analyst on the smart grid programs team at Commonwealth Edison where he manages academic partnerships on air quality, quantum computing, and climate change resilience. Prior to ComEd, Ryan taught sustainable business at Bucknell, Georgetown, and HSE Moscow. He holds a joint Ph.D. in Sociology and Business Ethics from Wharton.
Renée Skeete is a Senior Business Analyst on the Smart Grid Programs team at Commonwealth Edison where she manages projects demonstrating the impact of advanced energy technologies, and drives community engagement, external partnership development, and program evaluation strategy for the Community of the Future program. Prior to ComEd, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Renée holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Georgia State University.
Jackie Ratner is a senior project manager at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Her advocacy for public access to disaster-specific knowledge has been recognized in awards for science outreach, and she has spoken at the annual conferences of the American Geophysical Union and the European Geophysical Union, as well as numerous smaller conferences. Her BS with honors in environmental geology was awarded by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she was accepted to the earth science doctoral program at the University of Oxford.
Learn more about the role of energy utilities in fostering climate and disaster resilience at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness website.