How Lessons Learned Can Inform our Future – Sandy Five Years Later

Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the “500-year storm” that demonstrated the fragility of New York. Across the state, more than two million people lost power as the economic damage surpassed $40 billion. Entire neighborhoods were without electricity for weeks as emergency systems went offline and hospitals were forced to cart patients down multiple flights of stairs on cots because the grid and backup generators had failed. It was a wakeup call.

In response, New York rallied to get ahead of futures storms. A task force was formed with leaders across sectors to ensure that next time, New York would be prepared and the lights would stay on. I was honored that my company, GridMarket, was invited to lead this task force in partnership with New York State, New York City, leading utilities, top tier solution providers, and property owners committed to reimaging and rebuilding our energy infrastructure to improve our resiliency. And while progress has been made, it’s clear that much remains to be done.

This morning, it was reported that another northeast coastal storm had caused power outages for more than 1.3 million people across New England. It’s no longer a question of whether the “500 year storm” will occur in our lifetime; rather, it’s how often. And we need to be prepared.

For far too long, we have relied on the 20th century’s infrastructure and energy sources in the face of technological innovations that have increasingly made them irrelevant. But bureaucrats and special interests have clung to these traditional resources at the expense of our public safety, financial sustainability, and environmental stability. It’s what they know, and change is scary. That said, change is predictable; we need to adapt rather than ignore. And adaptation will require all of us working together to solve the global crisis of resiliency around the word.

The part of this preparedness equation to which I can speak most knowledgeably is energy. There has been a trend towards storm hardening in the energy sector in recent years, however this year’s storm season has brought these vulnerabilities to light in sudden and extreme fashion. Scientists have been measuring the strength of storms in the United States since 1851. Do you know how often two Category Four storms (Harvey and Irma) have hit the US in the same season before this year? Never. The consequences have been devastating. Millions were without power in Florida and Texas and – as of today – 75% of Puerto Rico is still without power. Storms will always be a given. Their impact, however, doesn’t have to be.

Our Hurricane Sandy Task Force concluded that distributed energy was the answer. As costs continue to plummet for technologies like solar, batteries, fuel cells, cogeneration, and energy efficiency, folks have the opportunity to generate and manage power themselves. They have the ability to control costs, stay up when the grid goes down, and be prepared like never before.

Five years ago, widespread microgrids and distributed energy resources sounded great in theory. But it seemed too early. Technologies like solar were taking off and growing exponentially in the New York market, but how to make that technology resilient? Energy consumers didn’t know. Energy producers clung to the grid they knew. Solution providers had fragmented answers, but nobody was putting the pieces together because of the logistical hurdles, bureaucratic red tape, and gaps of expertise. Where to install? How to get past permitting hurdles? Which business models will work?

With our task force, we embarked on a constantly evolving journey to answer those questions and accelerate the adoption of these grid transforming technologies. Five years later the market is growing, but it needs to grow faster. These increasingly frequent storms are evidence of that ticking clock. The question is not whether the world will transition to a renewable and resilient future; rather, it’s whether we will transition before it’s too late. Before small island nations find themselves under water. Before coastal city populations retreat inward. Before we reach a tipping point and climate change becomes irreversible.

Thankfully, GridMarket’s platform – which spun out of the Hurricane Sandy Task Force – has evolved with the market. We predict technology suitability for over 6 million properties in the US, and are rapidly showing governments, real estate portfolios, and solutions providers how to do it around the world. Data is more accessible than ever before, but the challenge is figuring out what to do with it. At GridMarket, we leverage billions of data points across millions of properties to make information actionable so we can empower customers and solutions providers to do business faster, better, cost-effectively. While we strive to provide a transformational engine for change, the journey is challenging and most of it is still ahead of us.

Five years later, the energy sector has deployed innovative projects across New York and the industry has grown substantially, but we are still vulnerable. We still need to move faster. And our secure future depends on all of us doing our part. Thankfully, we now know what to do.