How energy efficiency can boost resilience

Blog Post | April 16, 2018 - 1:07 pm
By Grace Relf, Senior Research Analyst, Energy Policy

Extreme weather events and natural disasters such as bomb cyclones, forest fires, the polar vortex, and hurricanes are wreaking havoc on buildings, the electric grid, and other critical US infrastructure. Some communities are still struggling to rebuild from last year’s disasters, even as another hurricane season approaches. In the wake of these events, many people are asking: how can we make our systems more resilient?

This question is extremely important, but with no common definition of resilience, answers vary widely. Resilience is often viewed as a system’s ability to withstand and recover from serious events. This broad definition can be applied to an individual facility, an energy system, a city, economic activity, or even a region.

In several upcoming reports and blog posts, ACEEE will examine how energy efficiency intersects with the need for more resilient facilities, cities, electric grids, and other systems. Here’s a sneak preview of these new resources and how they fit together.

Community Resilience and Rebuilding

City planners are fundamentally concerned with reducing and responding to threats to their communities’ homes, hospitals, businesses, and transportation systems. This includes short- or long-term losses of power due to extreme weather. A 2015 ACEEE report looked at the resilience benefits of efficiency measures (see table below) and the ways that local resilience planners can incorporate them.

Source: https://aceee.org/research-report/u1508

Energy efficiency can also play an important role in near-term post-disaster rebuilding plans. In a blog post coming in May, we will look at how efficient energy systems like combined heat and power (CHP), microgrids, and district energy systems can be part of rebuilding efforts to provide customers with reliable and affordable energy. We recommend that state and local policymakers recognize the benefits of energy-efficient measures and systems and do more to enable energy-efficient systems. At the federal level, Congress should update our disaster recovery strategy for long-term rebuilding with energy efficiency at its core.

Resilient Distributed Energy Resources

Later this month, we will release a new report, Valuing Distributed Energy Resources: Combined Heat and Power and the Modern Grid, that suggests ways stakeholders can do more to promote those systems. While we know that distributed energy resources are often more resilient than traditional generation infrastructure, they still make up only a small portion of the nation’s energy infrastructure. Our upcoming report will describe how facilities, communities, utilities, and others affected by poor energy resilience can better assess the costs of disruptive events and the benefits of mitigation strategies. We will also suggest a proposed framework for measuring the resilience value of distributed energy resources.

Grid Operations and Wholesale Energy Markets

In 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) began a process to examine resilience in the utility sector. The agency turned down a US Department of Energy (DOE) proposal aimed at subsidizing nuclear and coal energy plants as baseload resources to improve the resilience of the US energy system. Instead, it asked grid operators to define resilience and identify issues that are threatening it. For grid operators, this discussion is both nuanced and technical. In particular, they must consider how reliability — a term that is clearly defined by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and comes with strict performance standards and requirements — fits into broader grid resilience. For example, grid operators and FERC are working on changes to wholesale energy markets, which are used to meet reliability requirements.

This summer, we will issue a report that examines efficiency’s role in maintaining grid reliability, including its performance in wholesale capacity markets and its use in response to electricity crises. Recognizing the value of efficiency for grid reliability is important within the national dialogue around our resource mix and resilience.

Federal agencies, state regulators, grid operators, cities, and other stakeholders are all grappling with how to define and manage system resilience. Energy efficiency plays a critical role at each of these levels, and our upcoming publications and blog posts aim to ensure that efficiency takes center stage in the discussion. Stay tuned!