Navigant Research Blog

Preparing for the Worst, Cities Seek Resilience

— August 7, 2014

The Rockefeller Foundation is asking cities to apply for the latest phase of its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge.  This challenge aims to enable 100 cities to better address the shocks and stresses of the 21st century.  The selected cities receive support from the Rockefeller Foundation to create and implement resilience plans and to hire chief resilience officers (CROs) to oversee strategies.  Thirty-two cities – including, for example, Bangkok, New Orleans, Durban, Mexico City, and Rotterdam – were selected in the first phase of the competition.  San Francisco appointed the first CRO in April 2014.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report on the impacts of global climate change highlights the particular vulnerability of urban infrastructures.  The impact of climate change on cities can take many forms – including increased temperature, drought, and storms – but the most direct threat comes from rising sea levels.  Approximately 360 million urban residents live in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level.  China alone has more than 78 million people living in vulnerable, low elevation cities.  Miami, New York City, and Tokyo are also among the top 20 cities at the highest risk of coastal flooding, along with Asian megacities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Dhaka.   The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast of the United States in 2012 demonstrated how even the most advanced cities can be devastated by extreme events.

After the Flood

The threat to American cities is further emphasized in the Third National Climate Assessment from the U.S.  Global Change Research ProgramMiami, in particular, is developing into a test case for the impact of the climate changes on U.S. cities and the ability of civic and business leaders to collaborate in response.

Resilience can be characterized as the ability of cities and communities to bounce back from catastrophic events, as well as respond to more gradual changes that threaten well-being or economic stability.  Resilience is not just a question of identifying and acting on specific climate change impacts; it also requires an assessment of each city’s complex and interconnected infrastructure and institutional systems.   New York, for example, initiated a major study of the how the city’s infrastructure and services can be better designed to cope with events like Hurricane Sandy – including more resilient, distributed energy grids and new approaches to land use policy in flood-prone areas.

Urban Sensitivities

Resilience is also a driver for new technology adoption.  The Sensing City project in Christchurch, New Zealand is an interesting test case for how smart city technologies can support resilience planning.  Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 that left 185 people dead; the rebuilding project is estimated to eventually cost around NZ$40 billion ($35 million) in total.  The aim of Sensing City is to use sensor technologies and data analytics, including smartphones and sensors embedded in new construction, to lay the foundation for a healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient city.

Coping with the threats and uncertainties of the 21st century will require a deeper understanding of the normal operations of a city and its vulnerabilities.  That’s why resilience is becoming one of the key attributes of any smart city and a significant driver for the smart city market.


Philippine Typhoon Highlights New Disaster Risks

— November 15, 2013

An odd combination of distance and familiarity allows people living comfortably in the West to shrug and turn away from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the central Philippines.  An island country on the other side of the world is, once again, struck by a massive natural disaster, apparently the act of a wrathful God.  What’s new?  Like earthquakes in Central Asia, the incomprehensible scale of the destruction provokes a brief outpouring of compassionate aid, and not much else.  The modern world goes back to getting and spending.

Two things are changing, though, that make that “What can you do?” response less tenable.  For one thing, there’s a growing realization that such disasters are not just “natural.”  Second, they are coming soon to a coastline near you.

In the Red Zone

Drawing on a 2003 book titled At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters, by Ben Wisner and three co-authors, Tim Kovach writes, “Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster.”  A disaster requires at least three variables: a powerful natural event, a vulnerable population living in a hazardous area, and socioeconomic factors that increase the risk of exposure and limit the ability of the affected communities to recover.  If a typhoon levels an uninhabited island in the South China Sea, it’s not a disaster; it’s a noteworthy meterological event.  When it affects more than 11 million people, most of them living in flimsy wooden houses with no protection from powerful weather (and little help from their central government, housed in a modern city on a distant island), it’s a disaster.

The Philippines, with its 7,000 islands, volcanoes, mountainous jungle, exposure to the South Pacific, and endless, tropical coastline, is basically one big hazard zone.  On the other hand, as The Huffington Post, pointed out in a lengthy report one year ago, the United States has by choice funded rampant development in coastal “red zones” that are vulnerable to increasingly violent storms, as the $65 billion in damage from Tropical Cyclone Sandy amply demonstrated.  The inevitable pointless debate over whether Typhoon Haiyan or other extraordinary natural events are “caused” by global climate change misses the point; the fact is, storms are generally getting more powerful even as we continue to build our homes and office parks in harm’s way.

So Long Miami

This was brought home forcefully to the inhabitants of the Front Range, in Colorado, where I live, last month when a “100-year flood” hit Boulder and the surrounding towns, inundating Jamestown and Lyons and destroying many of the roads into the canyons below the Continental Divide.  Years of hot summers, moderate winters, and drought conditions have parched the forests of the Front Range, resulting in massive fires like the 2010 Four Mile Fire; and the burnt-over hillsides are unable to soak up or slow down torrential rains, which overwhelmed the area’s watersheds.

“In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones – the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires,” observed I-News, in an report titled Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger.  “Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone….”

The biggest red zone is South Florida, where hundreds of miles of low-lying coastal areas could be inundated by the end of the century by rising seas.  “At two to three feet,” of risen tides, “we start to lose everything,” Harold R. Wanless, the chairman of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, told The New York Times in an alarming story on Miami’s future.

Sandy, Haiyan, the Australian brushfires, the Colorado flooding: all just foretastes.  We all live in the red zone now.


Under Dark Skies, New Jersey Eyes Transit Microgrid

— September 11, 2013

During Tropical Cyclone Sandy in October 2012, over 2.6 million electricity customers in New Jersey lost power and thousands continued to struggle without it for weeks.  The estimated costs from property damage were around $65 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in U.S. history.  The aftermath of the storm underscored the need for more reliable grid infrastructure technologies in vulnerable coastal communities.  Today, the U.S. Department of Energy and the state of New Jersey are partnering to deploy a microgrid in the repair of New Jersey Transit’s (NJT) northeastern corridor, to be called the NJ TransitGrid.

NJT is the third largest transportation system in America, with a daily ridership of nearly 900,000, and is one of the most important access points to New York City.  During Sandy, the NJT rail operations center was flooded by 8-feet of water, and more than 300 rail vehicles were damaged.  The loss of NJT during Sandy was devastating to relief and evacuation efforts; total estimated costs to NJT were $400 million, and as of June 2013, 119 rail vehicles are still awaiting repair.  The future NJ TransitGrid will ensure that trains keep running when the grid goes down by adding grid-independent generation capacity in excess of 50 MW.

Disaster Prone

Microgrids use local and distributed energy generation and storage assets to enable communities, campuses, and organizations to operate independently of the power grid..  The NJ TransitGrid is the first system of its kind deployed in a major civilian transit system.  The microgrid technologies and management systems to be used in New Jersey have been undergoing development and demonstrations by the military at major installations in Hawaii and Colorado.  It’s no coincidence that these technologies are gaining interest in communities vulnerable to natural disasters.

At this point, though, the NJ TransitGrid is just a concept with a $1 million budget from the federal government to plan over the next 5 to 6 months exactly how the system will work and what assets it will employ.  Department of Defense microgrid programs have used a variety of traditional energy generation assets like diesel generation sets, solar PV, and wind, along with some cutting-edge energy storage technologies like vehicle to grid (V2G)-enabled plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).

The fact that the NJ TransitGrid will be deployed on a transit system presents opportunities to use the vehicles for energy storage and/or generation with advanced batteries.  Portions of NJT’s 2,000-plus buses can be converted to V2G-enabled PEVs, providing reserve power or balancing grid frequency when not in use, and batteries installed on the NJT’s light rail lines  can capture energy from braking trains.  These technologies are just emerging in demonstration projects and are, therefore, costly to implement.  However, increased adoption by the military and the major rail lines should drive those costs down, making microgrids attractive for communities vulnerable to natural disasters across the globe.


In Major Storms, Utilities Turn to Technology

— June 6, 2013

According to Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s System Watch web portal, more than 140,000 of its roughly 800,000 customers lost power during the second of two Oklahoma supercell tornados on May 31.

Everyone wonders what is going on in the cockpit when the plane is stuck on the tarmac.  In the modernized utility distribution control center, the operators have complete and current situational awareness of tens to hundreds of distribution circuits (OG&E has 1,100 circuits in its service territory), and sometimes more than a million meters.  Like a pilot in the cockpit, grid operators will have stackable monitors, color coded visualization on a GIS-enhanced interface, and the capability to quickly zoom in on alarms and provide intel to assessor, restoration crew etc.  Several such smart grid functions will have been used and useful in the overall effort of scouting, repairing, and managing outages in Oklahoma over the last 2 weeks.

On April 27, 2011, the resilience of Alabama Power Co. (APC) was tested in the most severe weather incident in the state’s history.  The outbreak of tornados resulted in 239 deaths.  Roughly half of Alabama Power’s 1.4 million customers were without power after more than 3,000 distribution transformers and twice as many poles were downed.  Eight distribution substations were either damaged or destroyed and 400 transmission structures were broken.  Yet, it took only 7 days for the utility to restore power.

The Next Generation

More than 10,000 mutual assistance resources were utilized, meaning restoration crews came from other states to help.  The company took a decentralized and mobile command approach; it used 11 staging areas, each equipped with a distribution management system (DMS) to manage remote switching and other operational control.  During less severe storms, APC operators can turn on an autopilot function (known as fault location, isolation, and service restoration, or FLISR) in the DMS to speed up service restoration, saving thousands of customers from sustained outages every year.  The smart utility’s goal is to minimize customer impacts by reducing restoration time when major events occur.  Utilities are looking to information technology / operational technology (IT/OT) integration and increased mobility to assist with outages.

In the event of outages, utilities rely on operational systems to notify customers of causes and estimated restoration times.  Next-generation DMS will be integrated with outage management to provide additional inputs for visualization and decision support to better address impacted areas.

Advanced workforce management (WFM) solutions that enable utilities to forecast, schedule, dispatch, and monitor progress of outage crew have gained increased interest.  WFM is carried out with the assistance of outage management tools that analyze outage reports to determine the scope of outages and the likely location of problems.  An outage management system (OMS) or a DMS compiles information on the times and locations of customer calls, smart meter outage notifications, and fault data from substations and monitoring devices on feeder lines.

Some utilities are reporting that the integration of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has given them the capability to reduce outage time by being able to confirm if meters have power or not.  AMI plays out in two different stages of restoration:

  • After performing restoration work in a given area, service at all the meters can be confirmed quickly and remotely before crews move onto the next area.
  • Individual complaints are followed up on in the wrap-up phase of a large storm restoration effort.

Traditionally there are always a lot of single customer outages that end up being “OK on arrival”, meaning a technician was dispatched with a ticket to restore power only to find out power has already been restored.  By confirming power has been restored via AMI and backing that up with a phone call to the customers, hundreds of truck rolls are saved in large storm events.


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