After the Hurricanes, Can We Rebuild a Stronger, Greener Grid?

Post-earthquake Japan and monsoon-battered India aren’t just repairing their grids. They’re improving them. It’s time for hurricane-battered Americans to do the same.

Hurricane Irma downed power line Florida
Hurricane Irma damaged Florida’s electric grid. Above, a downed power pole in Boca Raton, Florida, on Sept. 11.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, it destroyed the island’s sole electrical grid, killing more than 90 percent of the distribution network that connects consumers to their source of power. Experts currently estimate that much of the island won’t regain its connection for the next six months. And up north, Hurricane Irma’s historic winds put Florida in the dark, as 4 million utility accounts lost power from Miami to Tampa.

A total loss of power like this is not just frustrating; it’s dangerous. Among other side effects, it jeopardizes health care, compromises clean water, and disrupts sewage systems. When a Florida nursing home neglected to evacuate its patients, 11 elderly residents died after the electricity went out and took the air conditioning with it. The local police department says an investigation is ongoing, but the deaths have been attributed to the unbearable heat.

Even with a few weeks of reflection, what occurred in these tropical communities remains incomprehensible. The first order of business must be re-establishing acceptable and viable living conditions for those affected. But these harrowing situations also offer survivors an important choice: Do they restore what has failed them, or do they take this as an opportunity to innovate?

Back in 2011, when a magnitude 9 earthquake hit just off the coast of Japan, the initial seismic activity broke records on its own, but the resulting tsunami and nuclear meltdowns made the disaster truly horrific. Almost 16,000 people died, and millions went without electricity. But as Reuters reported in a recent piece, in the six years since the disaster struck, a “quiet energy revolution” has started. Motivated by their harrowing experiences in the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath, residents of the northern city of Higashi Matsushima are using relief funds and clean energy subsidies to rebuild better than before:

After losing three-quarters of its homes and 1,100 people in the March 2011 temblor and tsunami … The city of 40,000 chose to construct micro-grids and de-centralized renewable power generation to create a self-sustaining system capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without the need of the region’s local power utility.

The city’s steps illustrate a massive yet little known effort to take dozens of Japan’s towns and communities off the power grid and make them partly self-sufficient in generating electricity.

While they haven’t had to test their system the hard way, Higashi Matsushima officials estimate the community could power itself three days without outside support, thanks to its solar arrays, independent delivery system, and battery storage. While three days of electricity is, ultimately, just three days of electricity, in a disaster zone a 72-hour buffer can mean the difference between life and death.

Of course, Japan isn’t the only place taking its energetic future into its own hands, though it may be unique in that its efforts to decentralize energy are actually supported by a central government. As global climate change increases the likelihood of devastating storms, everyone’s looking to diversify power system, from Indians using solar panels to power through monsoon season to Brooklynites warding off a second Superstorm Sandy with a blockchain-based energy exchange.

The United States already has 160 microgrids, which are loosely defined as a system that allows people to operate in “island mode,” where they’re running on independently generated energy, typically from solar panels but also fossil fuels or wind. The number of these energy efforts is projected to grow, but challenges to implementation remain. Even with subsidies and savings over time, the upfront cost of solar panels can be steep—and if proposed tariffs on imported panels are approved, prices are set to skyrocket. Then there’s the matter of a microgrid’s legality: Creating your own grid requires the proper permits, which can take months to obtain. And, in most cases, people aren’t legally allowed to detach from the grid completely. Thanks to political debates around net metering, the influence of utilities lobbyists, and the sorry state of battery storage, most American microgrid users must still pay a minimum fee to stay under the utility’s umbrella. (For users of the Brooklyn Microgrid, that’s about $18.05 a month to ConEdison.)

These efforts reveal the importance of community-based initiatives. It’s tempting to try to become entirely self-sufficient, but having solar panels on your roof is meaningless if the panels are ripped off in a storm or one of a dozen other small fiascos unfold. That’s why the most effective microgrids have to be built by a community—or, in a best case scenario like Japan’s, a local government—that can pick up any individual’s slack.

Right now, Florida, Texas, and especially Puerto Rico are facing incredible challenges as they begin to rebuild. But they’re also afforded a unique opportunity to think strategically about what they want for their futures and to set an example for the rest of the world gripped by an increasingly calamitous climate. This may not mean much now, while the wounds are still fresh. But, if nothing else, Japan’s shown that necessity can be the mother of invention.