On the evening Hurricane Sandy struck, John Bradley was in his office on Broadway when the building suddenly lost power. Bradley is the associate vice president for sustainability, energy, and technical services at New York University, and he was on the phone with the local utility, Con Edison, at the time. “They were telling me they were systematically shutting down low-lying areas because they knew the storm surge and the full-moon high tide were going to hit around 9 p.m.,” he says.
It was 8:30. “I looked out my window, and all the lights were out,” Bradley recalls. “They said, ‘We’ve got some issues,’ and they got off the phone.” Nearly all of Lower Manhattan had lost power—except for much of the NYU campus.
In 2010, the university completed a project to replace its 1970s-era boilers with natural-gas-powered turbines, subterranean engines that generate 11 megawatts of electricity. Waste heat from the engines creates steam to produce an additional 2.4 megawatts and hot water, a process known as co-generation. Natural disasters were not at the top of the university’s list of concerns when the administration approved the project. “Number one was cost-effective production of electricity,” Bradley says. “Number two was reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.” (The system, which powers 22 buildings and heats 37, is saving the university millions of dollars each year; it’s also helped reduce the campus’s carbon footprint by 20 percent.)
When Sandy knocked out that ConEdison substation, a third benefit of NYU’s self-sufficiency became clear. “My equipment sensed that loss of voltage, and the breakers opened up, isolating the NYU grid from the larger utility grid,” Bradley says. For the next week, NYU was an island of power in a darkened neighborhood. Staff set up power strips on long tables in the library and unlocked outdoor outlets for anyone to use. “You saw people from the community plugging in their laptops, iPads, and phones all over campus,” Bradley says.
Natural-gas systems also kept much of the Princeton University campus and a sprawling Bronx apartment complex known as Co-op City up and running. Critical services such as hospitals, hotels, and fire stations should all have self-sufficient power generation, says Kelly. And relying on natural gas makes sense, he says, because it already flows through underground pipelines. Diesel must be trucked in to keep generators online and, during storms like Sandy, such fuel can be scarce.
Buildings can also rely on renewable-energy systems during a blackout. Solar panels on the Midtown Community School in Bayonne, New Jersey, helped power it as an evacuation center during Hurricane Sandy. But if such systems can’t automatically disconnect from the grid, utilities require them to shut down. Workers attempting to repair lines could be killed by electricity flowing back into the grid. “It’s like they’ve been on one-way streets all their life, and now all of a sudden there’s a car headed toward them,” Mantooth says.
A special inverter connected to a battery can enable buildings to island, or isolate themselves from the grid, as they continue to produce and store power. But existing technology is cost-prohibitive for homeowners. Mantooth’s lab is developing an affordable alternative: a microwave-size “green power node” that could be mounted on a garage wall. He hopes to find a manufacturer who could sell it at home stores for about $500.
The more power coursing through an aging infrastructure, the more vulnerable the grid will be to disruption—even without a natural disaster. Over the last three decades, U.S. household electricity usage tripled, from 30.3 million BTU per home in 1980 to 89.6 million BTU in 2009. Transformers, meanwhile, are now more than 40 years old on average, and 70 percent of transmission lines are at least 25 years old. To be resilient, the grid-—and those who rely on it—must also be more efficient.
Many utilities have already begun to replace one ubiquitous and outmoded device: the electricity meter, generally a spinning dial mounted near a thorn bush at the back of the house and read, in person, once a month. About 40 million U.S. homes now have smart meters, devices that digitally monitor and communicate home power use as often as several times an hour. The information allows utilities to track and bill more precisely—and recognize power outages instantly.
In Austin, Texas, volunteers in a smart-grid project are testing tools that will help the grid work more like the Internet, with two-way energy and information flow. So far, engineers have equipped 480 houses with advanced energy-monitoring systems. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin analyze the data with supercomputers. “We carry out the nation’s deepest-ever research on how people use electricity and natural gas on literally a second-to-second basis,” says Brewster McCracken, president of Pecan Street, the consortium that runs the project.
Companies such as Intel, Best Buy, and LG have also partnered with Pecan Street to test and develop products in a real-world setting. For example, Sony has installed a home energy -management system that measures the power consumption of various appliances from a single outlet and can be managed through a television set-top box. Homeowners can use the real-time data to minimize their load on the grid, shifting such activities as electric-vehicle charging to periods of surplus power.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 devoted $16 billion to installing new transmission lines and implementing smart-grid projects such as Pecan Street. It’s a modest start. Truly modernizing the U.S. grid will require an investment of $673 billion, according to a recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In the meantime, the costs of inaction continue to add up: Hurricane Sandy caused $69.7 billion worth of damage to New York and New Jersey. Just weeks after the storm, Governor Andrew Cuomo requested federal funding to help New York install the technology for a smarter grid. “It will be a significant investment,” New York State Smart Grid Consortium’s Manning says. “But Sandy has rewritten the opportunity to make the case.”
Kalee Thompson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She plans to add solar panels to her home after she can island it. This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Popular Science.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.