Cities

Powering Resilient Cities: How to Ensure Clean, Reliable, & Equitable Energy Systems

Blueprint and Aspen Institute’s third virtual Future of Cities Townhall. | Panelists: Lauren Faber O’Connor, Galina Russell, Nicole Sitaraman, and Jon Wellinghoff | Moderator: Greg Gershuny

Texas, the top energy-producing state in the U.S., seemed an unlikely place to run out of energy. It also appeared improbable that winter conditions would be the culprit, particularly after searing heat sent electricity demand soaring, nearly melting the state’s grid back in 2019.

But the freak mid-February snowstorm led to power grid failure and left almost 4 million people statewide in the dark, with frosty conditions and no access to clean water. The death toll linked to the recent cold snap topped 70, and more fatalities are expected to be reported.

Cities are hubs of energy consumption, and can, as demonstrated, be vulnerable to large-scale blackouts resulting from unexpected weather events and natural disasters. The succession of crises sounds the alarm for power systems nationwide. While electric grids can be engineered to handle a range of extreme conditions, grid operators must be able to reliably predict looming danger.

“In 2019, we had the Saddleridge Fire in southern California, which took out three different transmission lines in the city of Los Angeles,” recalled Lauren Faber O’Connor at Blueprint and Aspen Institute’s third virtual Future of Cities townhall, “Powering Resilient Cities.” “That curtailed thousands of megawatts of capacity that we have into the city … Cut to the year before … we had record-breaking heat.”

So, you’ve got “freezing in Houston, and melting in LA,” said Faber O’Connor, Los Angeles’ chief sustainability officer, reflecting on only a few years’ worth of troubling climate-related incidents.

Make the Grid Green: Renewables and Clean Energy

Photographer: Bowling Photoman | Source: Shutterstock

Faber O’Connor and her fellow panelists set out to discuss the future of community energy systems, looking at diversified, distributed, and clean models.

Municipal, business, and energy leaders are attempting to help cities adapt to and overcome pressures inflicted by climate change, the push to decarbonize, and the need for power system reliability.

Faber O’Connor characterizes her city’s priorities and best practices as “the five zeros”: a zero-carbon grid, zero-carbon buildings, zero-carbon transportation, zero-carbon waste, and zero wasted water.

“We have a particularly unique opportunity and responsibility by owning and managing the largest municipal utility in the country,” she said. “We’re taking on that responsibility of proving that we can move to 100 percent renewable energy reliably and equitably and affordably, and we can keep the lights on 24/7. We can do that with renewable energy.”

Of course, such plans and solutions require a range of stakeholders.

In Los Angeles, Faber O’Connor and her team will soon release the LA100 Study, a multi-year partnership between the city, its Department of Water and Power, and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to research the pathways to 100 percent renewable energy.

Decentralized and Interconnected Power Grids

In light of the increasingly extreme weather, Jon Wellinghoff, CEO and founder of GridPolicy, Inc., said that cities must “view [the electric grid] as a platform to provide resilience and reliability for citizens over time and over extreme events.”

By decentralizing the grid through modern, localized, small-scale systems, as opposed to the traditional centralized electric grid, cities can buttress themselves to thwart power failure.

He explained that one of the methods of doing so entails assessing the critical services in individual cities, including schools, fire, and hospital services, and “all those central hubs that can actually be used as locations for microgrids.” That provides “the insurance that they can isolate if necessary if the rest of the grid is down, like we saw in Texas just two weeks ago.”

Photographer: Menna | Source: Shutterstock

As an example, Wellinghoff shared that his daughter, who was in Austin during the storm and power outage, continued to have services throughout the multi-day event because she was in close proximity to a critical care hospital that the city opted to keep online.

“But we need to ensure that those circuits and those areas continue to maintain services over time,” he said. “[W]e have to look at these as integrated systems.”

“If we have strong interconnections throughout the country, we can have areas lean on each other if one area’s under stress,” Wellinghoff said. “That was the problem with Texas.”

His reference alludes to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) a nonprofit that manages the network of electrical suppliers, serving roughly 90 percent of the state. ERCOT and Texas have resisted requests to connect with two other national power grids, instead opting to remain independent.

“I’ve been saying this for 12 years,” Wellinghoff said. “Texas needs to join the nation and be part of the interconnected, interstate grid.”

Austin, Texas during Winter Storm Uri.
An aerial view of suburban homes in Austin, Texas during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 | Photographer: Roschetzky Photography | Source: Shutterstock

He added that electric strip heating, particularly common in low-income communities, was partially to blame for the recent outage across the state. “Because of that, it put extreme loads and stresses on the system. So, we have to put in commensurate systems to ensure reliability and resilience, like community solar, rooftop solar storage that has to go into these low-income communities.”

Building Equitable Energy Systems

Equity broadly remains top-of-mind for each of the panelists.

“We have to begin to think about really massive investment in communities of color to redress historic harms to communities by our traditional energy infrastructure,” said Nicole Sitaraman, vice president of strategic engagement at Sustainable Capital Advisors. “We really have to take a minute to think about how our energy consumption, how our energy delivery system in cities has really facilitated a tale of two cities.”

Sitaraman noted that federal funding for future energy-related projects ought to prioritize communities of color as well.

“We need to think holistically about how we can accelerate finance solutions so that these communities can have a meaningful role in our climate resilience future,” she said.

Galina Russell, chief operating officer at smart battery energy storage network, REEF Energy, added to the funding discussion: “To the degree it’s possible within our political framework, I think funding needs to be continuous and more stable across the board.”

She harkened back to the early days of the solar industry, noting that “when funding was cut, many companies went under. And so, obviously we don’t want a repeat of that same situation…”

Whether or not the Texas storm will become a catalyst for reform and progress of grid management and broader energy deployment remains to be seen.

But Russell concludes that “if anything, [the storm] served as yet another reminder that building resilience and supporting sustainability initiatives is really centerstage in our society at this time—and it’s all hands on deck—because we’re not just in a place of building for the future, but we’re also having to catch up on all the lost momentum of half a century.”

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