NYC’s Bounce Back from Hurricane Sandy Offers Lesson to Michigan

By Jim Dulzo, Michigan Land Use Institute 

Southern Michigan was blasted hard with very heavy rainfall and high winds a number of times this summer. Each time, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people lost power, often for many days, as our hard-pressed utilities scrambled to repair seemingly uncountable numbers of fallen power lines.

The same thing happened on a much grander scale in New York City almost two years ago, when Hurricane Sandy blasted that city, tearing up coastlines, badly damaging buildings, flooding many low- and not-so-low-lying areas, and causing widespread, long-lasting power outages.

These problems are not going away; in fact, most climatologists agree that, thanks to global warming, they are likely to get worse. So, as climate change works its steadily more destructive ways on modern civilization, building a power system that can stand up to more powerful, more frequent storms is crucial.

In New York, officials and citizen groups are taking action, and Michiganders should be taking notes.

The most recent news comes from the New York State Public Service Commission, which, according to NPR, wants to re-engineer the power grid so that it’s not only sturdier, but smarter, far more interactive, and able to handle everything from large batteries storing up to 12 hours worth of electricity to gizmos that turn electricity-guzzling appliances and machinery off when there’s more demand than the wires can handle.

That is good news for several citizen groups in New York City that are leading efforts to install more solar power systems around the city. That’s because the smarter the grid, the better solar power works for everyone—allowing people to store power for nighttime or use it during the day, fencing their solar systems off from downed power lines, something that’s not possible in most situations today.

One of the groups, Global Green USA, is now installing solar systems atop community buildings, so that when the next grid-flattening storm shows up, locals have somewhere to go besides a dark, unheated, dead-in-the-water house or apartment. It’s similar to work the group did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, a neighborhood in Brooklyn is taking the solar revolution into its own hands, too. Working with two non-profits, Sustainable Flatbush and Sustainable Kensington, the Solarize Brooklyn project helps neighbors harness the economic power of group purchasing to install solar systems on houses throughout the neighborhood with the express purpose of making the area more resilient in the face of future storms. Their initial effort hooked up 23 households—not bad for a bunch of unpaid volunteers.

There are groups around Michigan that would love to do work like this, too. But here it’s a much tougher row to hoe.

Why?

On top of a solid net metering law, New York State and New York City have an array of solar tax credits and exemptions, utility rebates, and other incentives that Michigan’s sun power fans can only dream about.

Of course, having more solar distributed around a big city won’t relieve all the pain or prevent thousands of outages. But, undeniably, moves like these will help people and public safety agencies recover more quickly and safely.

As the seas rise and storms strengthen, distributed solar is one wave of the future that, like climate change, has already arrived. It’s ready for service right now; what’s needed is for our utilities to realize there’s no holding back the sea—or the rise of solar—and the more quickly they, state lawmakers, and local officials clear the way for more solar power, the better off we all will be—on sunny and stormy days.

To close on a hopeful note: A bi-partisan group of Michigan state representatives is pushing a group of bills it calls the Energy Freedom package, which would make it at least a little easier to do projects like Brooklyn’s in our state. No hearing is scheduled yet, but we’ll keep an eye and ear out and let you know when to give your favorite state lawmaker a push on this and other important clean energy legislation that’s crucial to our economy and ecology.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org. The Institute is a member of the Clean Energy Now coalition. 

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