Friday, June 11, 2010
Cleantech Exec Comments on Westchester's Disaster Response
Disaster Recovery: Are We Too Focused on the Big Bang to See the Deadly Little Bangs?
Introducing The Falling Tree Syndrome: Electrical Internet, Houses with Crash Helmets and Trees with Seat Belts.
By Alan Brody
Last Sunday The Scarsdale Forum at the Scarsdale Women’s Club hosted a lecture on “Dealing with Local Disasters: What Can Nuclear and Pandemic Disaster Planning Teach Us?”- a timely topic one would think, following the disastrous March storms. The trouble is, you quickly realize that Indian Point has a way of dominating all disaster conversations to the point that we may be overlooking the clear and present mundane disasters that surround us: trees and power outages.
After 40 years, Indian Point remains controversial but no one seems to have died from it. Yet, in the March storm 7 people were killed by falling trees. Over 200 trees fell in Scarsdale and Greenburg, thousands of homes and businesses went days without power, dozens of streets and even schools were closed and downed power lines threatened lives.
Yet, the conversation returns to Indian Point where you quickly find that few people have any idea where to gather or where to hide in case of an emergency. Almost no one has emergency food or Potassium iodide pills, the cheap, essential radiation protection. Is it possible that by worrying about the really big thing, a nuclear disaster, about which we feel we can do little, we see no reason to worry about the smaller, more pressing issues and so we wind up doing nothing at all?
Maybe, like the “broken window theory” in crime-fighting which was effective because clamping down on small outrages lead authorities to its larger sources, we should think of an equivalent “falling tree” philosophy. If we prevented the giant trees around us from falling on power lines in storms and lowered the vulnerability of the networks massive power disruptions our lives would improve significantly.
Houses with Crash Helmets - Trees with Seat Belts?
Trees don’t have to fall – or at least, not where we don’t want them to. Con Ed and the towns may prune trees or even clear-cut them around major transmission lines, but the remnants of the 200 fallen neighborhood trees show they have shallow root systems thanks to our rocky soil. Yet they tower over 60, 70, 80 feet leaving our power lines as vulnerable as our houses.
So why not think out of the box? My neighbor’s 65ft tree fell on his house but caused no damage t because of a large abutting arbor which cushioned the tree fall. Maybe this is the key to thinking of ways to protect houses from falling trees? Reinforced protection trim? Eaves with foam buffers. Rooftop airbags? A non-lightning conducting roof rim and tree catcher?
Half-timbered colonials may seem untouchable but once upon a time, so did cars without seat belts and footballers without armor. Injuries changed that – so why don’t we learn that lesson within the fragile sanctuaries of our own homes?
Could the trees be restrained? If you go to any circus, you will see acrobats hanging from threads – so why shouldn’t trees be similarly restrained by cheap, invisible non-conducting Kevlar-based materials. In some cases, they might use roof nets. In most cases, groups of trees could be networked, some harnessed others restrained. One day, we might be able to genetically shorten our trees, extend their roots or somehow anchor them in rock - but right now they are looming giants that threaten us with every storm.
Microgrids – Personal Energy and a Power Internet
Once a tree falls on a power line whole towns and even regions pay the price because the power grid is an interdependent and not very fault-tolerant mid 20th Century contraption. The obvious answer is to cordon it off into Microgrids that can provide their own energy outside of the Grid. These are ideal for downtown business districts, the town hall and schools but could also apply to whole neighborhoods. This would use a combination of Con Ed power and locally produced solar, wind, cogeneration, sound-baffled generators, fuel cell, clean natural gas or a new advanced technologies.
There are also major safety advantages because these Microgrids can use non-lethal DC transmission: streets will not be closed by downed lines and temporary workarounds are easy. The wires are smaller and therefore easier to hide or bury. They can generate their own energy during expensive peak hours while buying cheap off-peak power from the Grid. They also enable smart measuring, metering and powerbalancing appliances during peak periods – something that will only increase if we adopt battery-powered cars
When you consider the savings from tax credits the ability to create local energy (according to the U.S. Dept of Energy, as much as 9.5% of power is lost on AC transmission lines) and funds from the recovery budget Microgrids start to make economic sense. Most of all, there is a growing consensus that these represent the future of power and towns that don’t take advantage when they can will be left behind.
While we applaud the quick cleanup after the storm and the willingness to discuss the issues – the agenda has to move from the familiar and politically hardened debates to a realistic look at our immediate vulnerabilities and the rapidly evolving technologies that will transform our energy usage. Otherwise this storm will be a true disaster when it just might have been a blessing in disguise – one that opened the door to smart, safe and lower-cost green energy.
Alan Brody is an internet entrepreneur who recently graduated from the NYU-Poli Cleanech Execuive Program whose classmate Mathew Fairy and professor Mel Horwich assisted in developing these ideas.