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Finding the Green Lining when Disaster Strikes

America finds itself again rebuilding from disaster, this time from tornados in the middle states, last fall from Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast. If this is the new normal, as some weather experts say, should policymakers treat it as an opportunity for renewables?

We have already discovered the value of such planning when it comes to energy efficiency. Policymakers know that consumers are far more likely to think about Energy Star ratings when the old refrigerator breaks than when it is still working. So they have structured incentives and programs accordingly.

Similarly, rebuilding from disaster creates a unique — and perhaps once in a lifetime opening — for renewable energy in some cases.  Businesses and homeowners find themselves suddenly forced to consider whole new systems for electricity, heating and cooling. Call it a teachable moment.  Carefully timed incentives and policies could encourage them to choose green energy, with solar being the most obvious for many.

“People’s lives have been upended and communities devastated in the wake of natural disasters.  As areas struggle to recover — and ultimately rebuild and rebound — our leaders should make it a priority to have solar included in the energy mix as reconstruction commences,” said Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior vice president, state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Government officials are beginning to think along these lines. After Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Department of Energy programs encouraged rooftop solar in New Orleans. In the Northeast, renewables already were a strong focus before Superstorm Sandy. And now they are becoming even more important as government leaders link the devastating storms with climate change. In fact, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last fall said Superstorm Sandy tipped his decision to support President Barack Obama because of his climate change policies.

Micha Tomkiewicz, a physics professor at Brooklyn College and author of the book ‘Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now,’ says that U.S. policymakers need to pursue what he calls ‘adaptive rebuilding’ — reconstruction that considers the changes wrought by rising seas and changing climate. An example is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to discourage coastal rebuilding by offering to buy homes at a premium that were badly damaged by Sandy.  The government would then raze them and preserve the land in an undeveloped state. The $400 million program is a way to encourage people to move to less storm-prone areas.

That’s one step, says Tomkiewicz. The second is mitigation — installing solar and other renewables to reduce fossil fuel use.  As he sees it, how states like New York handle rebuilding could have a worldwide impact on mitigation. The developing world — particularly China and India — are poised to rapidly increase energy use, and therefore carbon dioxide emissions. As the developing world constructs infrastructure for the first time, it is more apt to pursue clean technologies if places like New York City act as models when they rebuild.

“Since mitigation really, really strongly depends on developing countries, you have to build an incentive for them to take the steps,” he said. “Some are financial, some are really psychological. There is a strong element even on the international stage of what we call NIMBY — since the effect [of carbon dioxide] is global, let the other guy do it, not me.”

There are global implications, but local ones as well. SEIA’s Hitt points out that in America, rebuilding with renewables can bolster complex, high-demand energy systems.

“Solar offers a range of opportunities for our leaders to make sure that our communities are rebuilt to be stronger and more efficient — from stretching each gallon of gas further in the wake of a disaster, to combining solar with traditional back-up generation, to making our grid more resilient by developing microgrids, to building cost-effective green homes and businesses,” she said.

Solar is the mostly likely candidate in most locations for this kind of rebuilding, but other renewables are sometimes better suited. In Oklahoma, tornadoes damaged or destroyed almost 4,000 structures on May 19 and 20, according to state and federal emergency agencies. The state’s hot summers give it a large air conditioning load, so geothermal heat pumps are often the clean energy choice among homeowners, according to Bob Willis, owner of Sunrise Alternative Energy in Edmond, Oklahoma. Local utility cooperatives offer on-bill financing that makes the choice affordable. So Willis says he wouldn’t be surprised if installations accelerate with rebuilding from the tornado.

“Rebuilding offers some opportunity because it is a chance to say, ‘What would I do differently?’” he said.

While it is hard to think of tornadoes, hurricanes and other devastating storms as good in any way, there can be a ‘green lining’. It’s a matter of creating rebuilding policies that open up the possibility.

Lead image: Tornado aftermath via Shutterstock

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Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry's top magazines and newsletters, among them Renewable Energy World and Platts. She serves as chief editor of EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com. Her work has been picked u...

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