In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Northeastern states published resilience reports, action plans and infrastructure goals galore. The storm was devastating, but next time, they said, they’d do better. 

Five years later, the recovery effort shows rebuilding takes serious time. After Sandy, "resilience" became a buzzword and a promise to ensure the grid could stand up to nature’s perils. But with recent disasters in the Caribbean, the Southeast and California, it’s becoming even clearer how much work remains to build that newer, sturdier grid.

“The whole hardening arena becomes a lot more complicated and a lot more important going forward,” said Miki Deric, managing director of utilities, transmission and distribution at Accenture, who worked with utilities on post-Sandy recovery in Connecticut. “With the increased frequency of these large events, there’s a constant reminder that there’s a need to do this.”

A time of introspection

In October 2012, after leaving a path of destruction in the Caribbean, Sandy knocked out power for 8.5 million people in 21 states. The storm topped off months of extreme weather events beginning with Hurricane Irene, which caused 4 million people in the U.S. to lose power.

The “unprecedented weather” pushed cities and states to rethink how they had delivered electricity for a century. In the Northeast, especially, Sandy compelled hard-hit states like Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to take a hard look at resilience.

According to Richard Mroz, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, it was a time of introspection.

“The board, along with the industry across all the sectors, all of which were impacted, really turned inward to consider what measures had to be addressed,” he said.

The strategies that resulted from this stock-taking largely fell into two categories: microgrids and grid hardening. 

According to GTM Research, in the year after Sandy, states dedicated $56 million to microgrids, with Connecticut spending nearly all of those funds. In 2014, Northeastern states spent $84 million.

Through Q3 2017, the Northeast accounted for the majority of microgrid capacity with 33 percent of the 2,045 megawatts in the U.S. The region also accounted for 27 percent of built microgrids, falling just behind the Southwest, which has a sizable number of military microgrids.

Since 2013, the Northeast has constructed 35 microgrids, with at least one in nearly every state. In 2012, Connecticut passed a law setting aside over $30 million in grants and low-interest loans for microgrid development. The state had one microgrid before the storm; now it has eight. New York went from 10 before to 17 after. New Jersey jumped from three to seven. 

In 2014, New York announced a prize initiative to develop community microgrids. This year it chose 11 projects that will advance to feasibility studies. Three to five should be built between 2018 and 2020, said GTM Research grid edge analyst Colleen Metelitsa, who expects those to be relative boom years for Sandy-inspired microgrids coming on-line.

“A lot of money has been allocated, but not many of the microgrids have actually been built with post-Sandy funding,” said Colleen Metelitsa. “What we’ve seen in Connecticut, for example…a lot of these funds are still there, and a lot of those projects even from round one still haven’t been commissioned. A lot of them are moving forward, but it’s a slower process than everyone has been expecting.”

Some are coming on-line, though, such as New York City’s Marcus Garvey Village Microgrid, part of an affordable housing complex.

That project includes 300 kilowatts of lithium-ion battery storage and is fueled by 400 kilowatts of solar PV installed by Bright Power and a 400-kilowatt fuel cell system from Bloom Energy. A New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation loan financed the project and L+ M Development Partners and Demand Energy, a subsidiary of Enel Green Power, will share revenue and cover the debt. 

This summer, the New Jersey BPU approved feasibility study funding for 13 town center microgrids that would connect multiple buildings with critical infrastructure such as water and wastewater facilities, shelters and some commercial buildings. Using a $400 million Federal Transit Authority grant, the state is also working on the NJTransitGrid, which would keep transit lines into New York on-line using a dedicated natural gas plant and transmission lines. 

Many of the Northeast’s microgrids still rely on fossil fuels or combined heat and power systems. In the future, more clean energy is the goal.

“That’s really what we’d like to see, is the mix of traditional electric generation and renewables all in one place,” said Mroz.  

Hardening the defenses

In the event of another huge storm, microgrids will allow certain segments of cities and states to island from the main grid, but governments and utilities say they’ve also made strides in reducing the vulnerability of the overall system.

New York City worked with utility Consolidated Edison on prioritizing certain hardening measures, said Susanne DesRoches, deputy director for energy and infrastructure in the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. 

That collaboration led to efforts such as the hardening of 16 substations and five generating stations, selective undergrounding in areas like Staten Island, reinforcing transmission towers, installing submersible transformers and network protectors, and reducing feeder segment sizes so that a single failure can affect only up to about 500 customers. 

In New Jersey, the BPU approved $1.3 billion in infrastructure hardening and storm mitigation projects. Public Service Enterprise Group, a utility, set aside $3.9 billion over 10 years to implement smart grid technologies, strengthen distribution infrastructure and underground strategic areas. Atlantic City Electric worked on automated sectionalization and reclosers at 33 of its substations. Other utilities including Jersey Central Power & Light and Rockland Electric also installed reclosers. 

Many of these efforts have been made possible by the formation of green banks.

Connecticut created the country’s first green bank the same year Sandy hit by leveraging public funds to raise private capital. New York created its bank one year later with $210 million in initial funds meant to supplement private investment for clean energy projects. New Jersey’s bank, funded with $200 million from its federal community development block grant, focuses specifically on resilience.

A playbook for other regions

The progress post-Sandy hasn’t been perfect, and many have criticized it as unacceptably slow-moving. But what has been accomplished has become even more significant recently, as potential examples for areas suffering from recent disasters.

“They have a difficult task ahead of them, particularly the islands,” said Mroz. “There are some things you just can’t prepare for, but I think it’s incumbent on the industry and regulators to prepare and test their systems [and] think about what worst-case scenarios might be.”

Preparing systems for a climate-changed future will take even more work on the parts of system regulators. If Sandy forced utilities and governments to reckon with the reliability of their systems, the spate of recent hurricanes, flooding and fires raise even more questions about resilience -- and whether it's possible to build a grid that can stand up to super-strength natural disasters.

“We can continue to harden these things, and they’re going to do better in these storms,” said Deric. “But there’s never going to be a point where you’re not going to have damage in a storm like Harvey or Irma or Sandy. I just don’t think that’s a reality.”

For now, there's more work to be done on just baseline resilience for Sandy-stricken states. Though the areas most affected by the storm possess the will and momentum to harden infrastructure, tangible progress shows resilience is easier said than done. 

“The reality of it, when we look at infrastructure projects, is that we’ve hardly had any infrastructure projects completed,” said Ceci Pineda, resiliency training and policy coordinator at Good Old Lower East Side, a community housing organization. “When you look at the Lower East Side, a third of the buildings are in construction, a third are in procurement, another third are in the design phase.”

But Pineda notes that after Sandy, GOLES has been able to build relationships and networks with city agencies to prepare for the next storm. In that sense, governments have come to a different understanding on collaboration and what it means to rebuild after a disaster. 

“That’s the broader sense of what resiliency is,” said Mroz. “To think about not just the immediate response, but how you recover from an event and deal with it.”