It was stunning to see just how fast Sandy shut down the northeast’s electrical systems, leaving people powerless in more ways than one. The storm’s flip of a switch effect was because our electrical generating systems are so centralized.
Not one to mince words, Governor Cuomo called New York’s electrical system “archaic and obsolete.” “The utility system we have was designed for a different time and for a different place,” he said, it “is a 1950s system. We’re going to have to look at a ground up redesign.”
The Governor is right. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan last year, nuclear power plants broke open, unleashing devastating damage. The wind farms in Japan, however, survived and helped with energy shortfalls. Many gas stations in New York had tanks brimming with gasoline. The problem, in part, was the pumps didn’t work. If each station was powered by solar, which can easily be done, those pumps would have helped to break the Sandy gas shortage.
A decentralized renewable energy system is entirely achievable. For instance, well over half of New York City’s rooftops are ideal for solar panels and could generate enough energy to meet half of the city’s needs at peak periods. Last month, according to the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans believe in global warming. The unscientific argument that it is a hoax has caused political gridlock for too long. It is time our politicians listen to the American people and tap into this new awareness to build a system that will provide us greater protection.
Many countries are already building systems that solve today’s challenges. Cooperatives Europe, which promotes cooperative business models in Europe, at a recent meeting of policy makers from 15 European countries, concluded that “decentralized renewable energy systems will be the main success factors for the renewable energy transition,” citing Denmark and Germany as leading the way. This year, 26% of Germany’s electricity will come from a decentralized system that pivots on three main sources – solar, wind, and biomass. Confident they will meet their target of 35% by 2022, the German government now forecasts they can easily have 50% of their power from decentralized renewables in only ten years.
If the United States had a similar capacity, millions could have safely sat out Sandy, and not feared if oil tankers couldn’t make it to their terminals for a week or two. The “great vulnerabilities” Cuomo passionately mentioned would be mightily averted.
While President Obama has it right with his clean energy policy, he is wrong to promote distant, centralized systems. If Ohio and Indiana’s electricity comes from wind farms a 1,000 miles away in North Dakota, we’re back to square one. If that system shuts down, those two states go as dark as downtown Manhattan did recently. The safest energy future Americans have are small-scale, local energy facilities and upgrading the transmission systems in each state.
Cuomo noted that our utilities are monopolies, faceless bureaucracies. A local decentralized system reduces absentee ownership and makes us more accountable to our neighbors.
I saw that accountability first hand when the building operated by an environmental education non-profit I serve, Solar One, was swallowed up by Sandy.
The first stand alone solar power building in New York City, nestled on the banks of the East River, aptly called Solar 1, every inch of its 20 by 25 roof is covered with solar panels. Built to be an inspiring demonstration model, it looks like a tricked-out Airstream trailer. So when the river sunk it into five feet of water, it was a miracle it didn’t float down the street like the two ton cars parked nearby.
Neighborhood folks showed up the day after the flood to help clean up the mess. A Solar One educator checked to see if the solar panels are still working. They worked perfectly.
Solar One educators immediately set up a community charging station because as anyone hit by Sandy knows, a low blood sugar feeling kicks in when the battery indicator on your cell phone is on empty.
Soon hundreds of weary people from the lower eastside rushed to Solar 1 to charge their iPhones and Androids. For days, while the towering downtown buildings around it were pitch black, Solar 1 was brightly lit. New Yorkers stood under its light, exchanging Sandy stories and sipping coffee. A ten year old boy with asthma charged his nebulizer, a machine that makes it easy for him to breathe.
To help residents and relief workers, Solar One partnered with SolarCity and Consolidated Solar to create The Solar Sandy Project and deploy 10 kilowatt solar generators, with the first two installed in Rockaway Beach. These generators will not cause a fire or lead to carbon monoxide deaths, as some gas-powered generators have done (as reported to the NYC Fire Department).
Solar 1 will soon be replaced by a much bigger (12,000 square feet) energy-positive building, also aptly called Solar 2. Through the most advanced engineering and design, Solar 2 will produce more energy than it uses. It will generate energy for others and provide classrooms for environmental education.
If another tropical storm hits New York with 14 foot swells and a 32 foot wave in its harbor (sadly, the probability is it will), Solar 2 may be rattled like its predecessor, but the odds are it will have light, heat and hot water, unlike the buildings around it. This time downtown New Yorkers will flock to it not only to charge their phones, but to use it for temporary shelter while our city scrambles to patch together a centralized, faceless power system that belongs to another century.
Chris Collins has helmed Solar One since 2004. A graduate of Holy Cross College and Albany Law School, Chris previously worked for 20 years as a litigator in both New York and California, specializing in complex commercial litigation, environmental litigation, civil rights, securities, elder abuse and many other areas of the law. After leaving the law in 1999, Chris worked as a Director at Oracle Corp. and as a Director of Risk Management at Sapient.