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Why Advancing Energy Infrastructure is Essential to Efficient Disaster Relief
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By Samantha Markin

Access to reliable energy is essential to the American way of life. When the nation’s energy infrastructure fails, such as with weather and climate disasters, the impacts are exceptionally costly and life threatening. During the first nine months of this year, the United States experienced $15 billion in natural disaster costs with a total of 282 deaths. Disaster relief is put at risk when the power goes out because modern relief efforts are reliant on electricity. Advancing the nation’s energy system today could lead to future efficiencies in relief efforts that reduce costs and fatalities.

Even before disaster strikes, US energy infrastructure is in critical condition. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. grid and power system a D+ on an A, B, C, D, F rating scale. The report concluded that aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and increased demand, combined with increasing storm and climate impacts would result in longer and more frequent power interruptions. Economic losses during the downtime, such as delays in providing food, water, shelter, medicines and relief services to those in need could be avoided with improved energy systems. Nowhere is this more evident than in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria caused 80% of the electricity grid to go down, knocking out power to almost all of the residents in the territory. At least 10,000 shipping containers carrying aid could not be distributed in time due to lack of communication and fuel.  NPR estimates a cost of more than $5 billion to restore Puerto Rico’s aging power grid in addition to extensive delays due to outdated infrastructure. 

In addition to decreasing the cost of relief efforts, enhancing energy infrastructure could reduce the fatalities after a natural disaster. For example, Hurricane Irma triggered a power outage in Florida which resulted in 11 heat-related deaths of nursing home residents after the facility lost air conditioning. While direct deaths could not be avoided after the storm, relief efforts, such as providing adequate shelter and medical care, to prevent indirect deaths were hindered by the inability to restore electricity quickly. Following Hurricane Sandy, the drawn-out effects of the storm also produced indirect casualties. A study in the Online Journal of Health Informatics revealed that power outage in the Northeast was an underlying cause that indirectly led to increased carbon monoxide exposure from generator fumes. By improving energy infrastructure, power interruptions could be minimized and unnecessary deaths due to heat and carbon monoxide poisoning could be avoided.

Modernization of U.S. energy infrastructure could dramatically reduce the likelihood of power outages during natural disasters. Sustainable options such as renewable energy, resilient micro-grids, distributed generation and advanced batteries should be considered to achieve this outcome. A flower nursery with solar arrays in Puerto Rico, for example, could rebound within days and continue production after Hurricane Maria while the rest of the island was still in the dark. Greater investment in the nation’s energy system to provide long-term capacity and sustainability could make relief efforts both more effective, and less necessary in the first place.

Samantha Markin is a Technology Consultant with Accenture and volunteers as a development researcher on the CleanTech team and an eco-partnership co-lead with The Nature Conservancy. Samantha is passionate about sustainability and clean energy and recently completed her degree from American University's Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) program.

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