Rebuilding with 2050 in mind, not 1950

An energy perspective on rebuilding after the most destructive wildfire episode in California history

Powerful forces are placing enormous pressure on a fast rebuild of the fire-demolished areas in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. As featured in a recent Sunday edition of the local paper of record, the Press Democrat, the debate about how to rebuild, and how fast or slow has begun. It is a debate that will likely grow. “City officials and most of the City Council have adopted a full-speed-ahead approach…but others are asking whether the city, by moving so fast, might miss its chance to rebuild smarter and safer,” the article states.

It is understandable that the city and county and many residential and business property owners want to clean up and rebuild as quickly as possible. Careful consideration of residents’ and business owners’ needs and wants is imperative. Some kind of process for ensuring that their voices are heard and needs are met as soon as possible needs to happen, as does determining what kind of rebuild occurs over the longer term.

Instead of a slow-down, an expedited process for code revisions and special permitting for the longer term rebuilding is in order to allow for inclusion of advanced 21st century systems and technology in what is rebuilt. The question is: how can we expeditiously rebuild with energy infrastructure optimized for safety and efficiency. Doing so offers a path forward that has a potential win/win dynamic that can favorably address resilience and future emergency response scenarios, in addition to offering advantages on consumer energy costs, energy load management, and more.

Rebuilding with the year 2050, not 1950 in mind means a lot more than under-grounding electric utilities, slapping solar panels on roofs, and making homes electric-vehicle-charging-ready or even adding on-site energy storage to the system. It means integrating all of these technologies and more with the smart sensors and controls, communications tools, and advanced automation that are now available that can do double duty for both early warning of future disasters, early pinpointing of trouble spots, and managing energy generation and demand for cost savings and greenhouse gas reductions.

So, what are we talking about here?

Reports are emerging about microgrids in Sonoma County that were able to keep lights on and water pumps operating when others lost power as a result of the fire. A case in point is the story from our friends at the Stone Edge Microgrid project in Sonoma Valley. Not only were they able to go into energy island mode, they were able to do it remotely. For ten hours while the power was out all around them, using rooftop solar generation and energy storage they were able to stay powered. “By quickly putting the microgrid in island mode in response to the fires…the team learned a lot of lessons it wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Top among them [microgrid engineer Craig Wooster] said: ‘The microgrid did what it was supposed to do.’” I wrote about this now repeating phenomenon briefly in “Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse” in 2013 when the Rocky Mountain Institute pointed out the resilience benefits of microgrids that weathered 2012’s Superstorm Sandy far better than areas of New York that did not have such systems.

The vision for a green energy rebuild with 2050 in mind could look something like this: An all-electric renewables-based clean community microgrid that obviates the need for reconstructing obsolete fossil gas and electric infrastructure, including wooden utility poles, a 19th century technology. Why all electric? Because in Sonoma County our electricity dollars pay for an extremely clean mix of power, thanks to Sonoma Clean Power.

Then, beginning with passive design (taking local environmental conditions like prevailing winds into consideration) of new structures, and including the four key technologies of solar, storage, electric vehicles, smart controls, along with others like electric heat pump water and space heaters would enable the decommissioning of the fossil gas infrastructure.

It is a system where sensors are embedded in key points that allow emergency responders to know what and where the problem is early, instead of relying on an antiquated system that requires someone to make a phone call (Imagine if you needed to get a phone call to know you cut your finger; no, your system just knows and reacts!). Other sensors can be embedded that allow grid operators to communicate with load centers in a two-way mode allowing real-time demand response management. All structures can and should be designed to be zero net energy or even net-plus, producing more power than they consume. Many more dimensions of a smart green energy rebuild can be considered.

Some of these technologies may cost more to include, but the right kinds of programs, financial tools, and incentives can make it possible for these ideas to be low or no cost to property owners. This is where the utilities, local government, PACE providers, Community Choice agencies, local financial institutions, and others can play a critically important role and there are early indications that they are eager to work together to make some of this happen. There are community and system-wide energy, safety, and resilience benefits that can justify the investment. And ultimately this approach will save homeowners money on energy and enhance their own safety.

Of course, in addition to the residents, businesses, and others whose structures burned, many other stakeholders will need to be engaged on this including community based organizations, developers, contractors, energy project developers, systems integrators, and others. Both Sonoma County and Santa Rosa will need to be willing to look at innovative stretch and reach codes and ordinances, innovative building codes that push performance to the next level and that can help facilitate such a vision.

Sadly, the recent firestorms could be the “face of the future” as my colleague Barry Vesser pointed out in the aftermath of the 2015 Lake County wildfires. But out of the ashes of this disaster can be born something new and wonderful. And it could create a new model for other communities to follow who will inevitably be hit by ever-increasing climate calamities. We have an unprecedented opportunity to create much safer, energy efficient (and therefore, cost-saving over time), and resilient communities in the areas that were completely lost. Let’s think seriously about doing that before paving over the opportunity.

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