After Katrina: Let's Rebuild Green
Hurricane Katrina is likely to destroy more structures than any other natural disaster in history. Utilities in her path are struggling to restore their conventional hub-and-spoke electric distribution grids. If an expected quarter-million small businesses and residences are to be bulldozed, why not build solar-powered structures in their place using sustainable building materials and techniques? Why not rebuild the power grid wisely, too?
September 08, 2005
Opinion (Talk Back)
It's somehow symmetrical that the U.S., among the least environmentally friendly nations on the planet, a nation possessed with fighting terrorism on the other side of the globe, has been attacked with such force by Mother Nature.
It's a tragedy, yet I wonder if this natural disaster is an opportunity to do something good for the environment. "Even for those structures that only lost their roofs, there is a unique opportunity: Make every new roof a solar roof."
"Even for those structures that only lost their roofs, there is a unique opportunity: Make every new roof a solar roof."
They're coming down
Setting aside for a moment whether a broken manmade levee is a natural disaster, consider the near future for the Gulf states: As rooftops emerge from the waters of New Orleans, the buildings under most them will be unusable, according to news reports.
Those structures that don't collapse will have to be torn down. Wood frames will be swollen and warped. Even masonry will be unstable after floodwaters weaken their mortar. Plaster will have dissolved. And those spaces that survive will harbor unseen hazards.
Insulation and foundations will be a breeding ground for molds that are hazardous to humans. The mud that's inches or feet deep on every floor in the city is from the Mississippi River -- polluted for a century with everything from oil spills to lead paint.
Long before the bitter battles are over between insurance companies and their customers, whole neighborhoods will be completely bulldozed. In addition to the damage in Louisiana, tens of thousands of homes were severely damaged or destroyed in Mississippi by Katrina.
Even for those structures that only lost their roofs, there is a unique opportunity, here: Make sure every new roof is a solar roof.
The grid is dead -- long live the grid
"If it is an element of the electricity delivery system, it was damaged during Hurricane Katrina," wrote Curt Hebert, an executive vice president with Entergy, in a news bulletin released last week. Entergy supplies power to 2.7 million customers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. Hebert is the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission and a Mississippi legislator.
What's dead? "Distribution lines, transmission lines, switchyards, substations, support buildings at generation stations, individual meters on customers' premises," Hebert continued. "The outages in Louisiana and Mississippi peaked at nearly 1.1 million. That's more than quadruple the number of outages from any previous single event."
Modern grid technology has the potential to save money and reduce outages, but, as Hebert put it, "Hurricane Katrina upped the ante."
Despite tremendous time pressure on Entergy to restore power, here's another unique opportunity: Replace the destroyed grid components with much newer technologies -- and rebuild a smart grid that is resilient and supports distributed energy.
We know that distributed energy survives most major and minor disasters better than the old hub-and-spoke centralized approach. That's why hospitals and other facilities have backup power systems. Renewable energy also is a form of distributed energy. But connecting either to the conventional grid has been a perpetual problem.
A clean slate for green building
Today, people in the Gulf states are wondering how they will find enough trucks to take away all the debris, and landfills to receive it. Granted, construction waste recycling -- a practice that, when followed, sometimes takes care of 90 percent of the debris from a tear-down -- might not be a realistic option. There is considerable time pressure, and the aforementioned health hazards.
But this is a new beginning, and planners are beginning to ask some tough questions: Should some New Orleans neighborhoods have their layouts changed, streets re-planned, to ease the flow of traffic and benefit mass-transit routes? Should the new city place a priority on light rail? Should neighborhoods be re-zoned to shorten commutes and make job-finding easier for people without cars?
The human and social aspects of these questions are beyond the scope of EP. Here is one certainty: The rebuilding of all structures should be done with regard for their environmental footprint. To use old-fashioned materials, which take excessive resources and energy to manufacture and transport, would be a lost opportunity.
Let's construct buildings that are energy efficient, perhaps self-sufficient. Those structures should render recyclable materials when they, in turn, are torn down in 50 to 75 years. How much additional financial assistance would it take to make green builders competitive in the rush to rebuild?
Renewable energy boom -- or bust?
The Gulf states are a terrific location for solar power, and their onshore winds could power small-scale turbines. One of the factors expected to lower the cost of renewable energy is economies of scale.
It's the classic Catch-22: When (insert renewable energy source here) becomes economically viable, more units will be sold, and the manufacturing costs will come down. When the costs come down, it will become economically viable.
But here is our chance to create those economies. Who will introduce the bill in Congress to spend some of that federal money to plan renewable energy into whole communities, and to rescue the utilities from their antiquated transmission and distribution grids?
Above all, let's not miss this extraordinary chance to do something nice for the world's greatest superpower. Maybe then she'll leave us alone for a while.