At dusk on July 3, 2018, my five-year-old daughter, my husband, and I watched as a wall of flames rose in the place of the sun and advanced ominously over a hill within view of our home in Basalt, Colorado.
We evacuated that night. My husband and I made a quick pact to focus our efforts: if it’s irreplaceable, bring it. Otherwise, it stays. Within 15 minutes and with the help of friends we loaded our car with a seemingly random mix of important documents, photos, and hard drives.
We spent the next two weeks evacuated due to the Lake Christine Fire, and we were graciously welcomed by a mix of family, friends, and families of friends. We were glued to our phones following emergency alerts and Twitter updates, listening to streamed community meetings, and constantly checking in with neighbors on the status of our and other homes on Ridge Road, which was ground zero for “holding the line” above the town of Basalt. Many of my colleagues in Rocky Mountain Institute’s Basalt office location shared a similar experience, as the fire burned an estimated mere quarter mile from the RMI Innovation Center.
“The Lake Christine Fire spread incredibly quickly,” says Mike Palamara, who was part of a three-man crew from Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District that went to Basalt to help battle the fire. “Unfortunately, with changing weather patterns, we’ve been seeing more of these bigger and fast-moving wildland fires. We need to prepare by making our communities more resilient to natural disasters.”
Over the course of the next few months, the wildfire burned a total of 12,588 acres, but by some miracle claimed only three homes, and no human lives were lost. Once the fire was successfully contained in September 2018, our community was faced with a new set of challenges, including smoky air, damaged electricity infrastructure, charred landscapes, and threats of flash floods.
But the challenges also revealed opportunities seized right away by the community to define who we are and how we come together during a time of crisis. Neighbors cheered on firefighters returning to their camp after the fire had been successfully contained. Homemade signs honoring public safety officials hung in homes nd local businesses. And local entities came together to ask themselves a fundamental question, “How resilient is our community, and will we be ready when this happens again?”
A NEW CLIMATE NORMAL?
An increasing number of studies have investigated the connection between climate change and severe events such as the deadly floods in the US Midwest, the California drought, Colorado’s severe 2018 fire season, and other events affecting millions of people around the world — evaluating the extent to which rising global temperatures exacerbated these events and/or made them more likely to occur. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society now issues a special report each year assessing the impact of climate change on the previous year’s extreme events. And one of the strongest messages coming out of the fall 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes.
In light of this evidence, communities and countries as dissimilar as Basalt, Colorado, and Caribbean islands are partnering with RMI in search of processes, tools, and tactics to improve their resilience to extreme weather events in the “new climate normal.”
ACTING LOCALLY, THINKING GLOBALLY
One of the biggest threats posed by the Lake Christine Fire was to the electricity infrastructure managed by Holy Cross Energy, a rural cooperative utility that provides service to more than 12,000 customers in the Roaring Fork Valley where Basalt is located. “Because of our mountainous geography, all electricity transmission lines serving the Upper Roaring Fork Valley pass through a constricted area around the substation in Basalt. And even though Holy Cross does have a few redundant transmission lines, we came very close to having power knocked out for an extended time to the entire Upper Roaring Fork Valley during the busiest time of the year,” says Kevin Brehm, a manager with RMI’s electricity team. “We came extremely close to a very serious power outage.”
Almost immediately, the utility took action, calling upon local stakeholders in policy, energy, and climate to consider how to prepare for the next fire. Today, Holy Cross is partnering with RMI in a sweeping effort to evaluate how to improve the resilience of the region’s electricity system in preparation for future disasters, ensuring — at the very least — that reliable access to critical services like hospitals and wastewater treatment could be maintained, and doing so in a way that meets other community needs and goals.
“Holy Cross is partnering with RMI in a sweeping effort to evaluate how to improve the resilience of the region’s electricity system in preparation for future disasters.”
The team designed a process to evaluate the current state of affairs (surveying people in charge of critical facilities and services in the area to assess energy requirements and what solutions they already have in place), engaging with the community to evaluate which solutions could work, and assessing current and emerging solutions (along with associated costs and business models) to recommend strategies to improve energy resilience in the short and long terms.
“Our town and Holy Cross Energy have already made very aggressive and voluntary commitments to clean energy. Goals such as these are important to consider in designing a solution that is appropriate for the customers and community that Holy Cross serves, because it signals what is important to them,” says Joseph Goodman, a principal with RMI. “For our team at RMI, the project provides a unique opportunity to have a positive impact in the community in which we reside, and to share insights about what a community-based approach to resilience can look like.”
Early interviews revealed that while many agree that resilience is a top priority, entities differ in how they approach resilience and many have yet to explore the interdependencies that exist among facilities or agencies that need to work together in the event of a disaster. Harnessing these interdependencies can open up new ways for technologies like renewable energy plus battery storage to provide resilient and sustainable energy solutions to more parties, more cost-effectively than everyone “going at it alone” with a solution like a diesel generator.
“The process is as important to our community as the recommendation,” adds Brehm. “Discussions and dialogue will help people gain awareness of and trust in emerging solutions, identify the assets that carry the most benefit to the greatest number of people, and ultimately allow Holy Cross Energy to successfully invest in and manage these assets.”
In the coming months, the team expects a set of projects that can be put in place by the next fire season, along with a set of case studies, recommendations, and lessons that can help other communities and electric utilities facing similar opportunities and challenges.
SHAPING A RESILIENT FUTURE FOR ISLAND NATIONS
Nobody is on the frontlines of climate more than Caribbean island nations, many of which suffered the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. In Puerto Rico, for example, Hurricane Maria virtually wiped out electricity infrastructure. It took a full 130 days to restore power to seven out of 10 people, which still left thousands in the dark.
Now, as island nations and communities look to rebuild, they are doing so in a way that is more resilient to future storms and that sends a powerful message to the rest of the word: instead of being victims of climate change, we are leaders in clean energy solutions.
With the help of RMI and partners like the International Renewable Energy Agency and Caribbean Electric Utilities Services Corporation, 14 islands nations have made big strides on long-term energy planning and implementation of renewable energy projects that boost resilience and energy affordability.
“When we first started the Islands Energy Program, we didn’t have the resilience buzzword front and center. Our goal was to make islands more sustainable, but the two are fundamentally interwoven,” says Chris Burgess, a principal with RMI. “Relying on diesel shipped every week from other countries and central fossil fuel plants to deliver power is not sustainable — nor is it resilient. For an energy system to be sustainable and resilient, it must be affordable, local, and distributed.”
The citizens of island nations pay some of the highest electricity rates in the world, and in the Caribbean, the average household spends one-quarter to one-third of its income on energy. Historically, islands have relied on one energy source: imported diesel. Rising costs and intermittent supply (especially during emergency events), plus an abundance of local renewable energy resources (like wind, solar, and tidal power) mean that islands have a unique and strong business case to make the clean energy shift. The hurricanes simply underscored the critical need.
“For an energy system to be sustainable and resilient, it must be affordable, local, and distributed.”
STRONGER SOLAR SYSTEMS
Resilience solutions can be worked into renewable technologies themselves. RMI’s 2018 report Solar Under Storm is another resource for technology providers to use to advance and improve the design of solar installations that stand up to extreme weather. “The report was a direct response to devastation we saw to PV systems after the 2017 hurricane season,” says RMI’s Chris Burgess. “We dug into the engineering as to why some systems failed and others survived.”
Specifically, the team examined and compared systems that were damaged by hurricanes or failed in extreme weather against those that survived to understand common root causes and best practices.
“We’re not replacing structural standards, but helping people make decisions as they rebuild,” continues Burgess. “We want to send the message loud and clear that you can and should rebuild with solar, and solar can survive a category five storm.”
Solar Under Storm is available at rmi.org/solar-under-storm
Burgess points out that RMI is uniquely positioned to support and accelerate islands energy transitions because, even though we are a foreign entity, we can help establish homegrown solutions. “Islands are inundated with consultants, but none that are partners. We bring the right people to the table — government, the utility, and service providers — to create an enduring national energy transition strategy based on the shared goals of securing their energy future,” says Burgess. “Interestingly, people’s objectives are usually aligned: everyone wants cheaper, more reliable power. The nuances are in how to get there. RMI serves as an independent fact-based broker in the process.”
This independent approach is making an impact by allowing islands not only to plan for more renewable energy, but also to install projects and advance shared learning. So far, the team has helped facilitate the installation of 17 projects totaling over 70 megawatts of renewable energy spread across eight island nations. And, there is an online knowledge exchange community for island energy practitioners, which has grown to over 1,000 members. In March, the team attended a ribbon cutting for a new 925-kilowatt solar park in the Bahamas, which is expected to replace the equivalent of 310,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.
But perhaps most ambitious on its path to energy resilience is the poster child for Hurricane Maria devastation: Puerto Rico. This spring, Puerto Rico’s legislature passed a bill that calls for all electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2050, with benchmarks of 20 percent by 2022 and 40 percent by 2025. RMI has been helping Puerto Rico since 2017 with post-hurricane energy planning efforts, and with on-the-ground programs that demonstrate how renewable energy-powered microgrids can provide increased resilience while also moving the country toward its ambitious energy target.
Together with partners Resilient Power Puerto Rico, Save the Children, and the Kinesis Foundation, RMI is helping to make sure the tools and resources for microgrid development are available for the benefit of communities across Puerto Rico through two distinct but related efforts: the Renewable Microgrids Program and the Resilient Schools Microgrid Project. The Resilient Schools Microgrid work is supporting approximately 3,600 students at 12 schools and up to 100 critical community facilities with upgraded energy infrastructure like solar energy and battery storage. The systems on the 12 schools, which will also serve as emergency preparedness locations, will total about 300 kilowatts and the community facilities’ systems will total about 1,500 kilowatts of solar energy installed.
SOFT SOLUTIONS TO HARD WEATHER
Interestingly, as more and more communities, cities, countries, government agencies, and corporations plan for the future, the best solutions for resilience have a common thread and are very much rooted in the past.
In Amory Lovins’s 1970s landmark article for Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” an alternative for the world’s energy future was laid out: one that combined energy efficiency and renewable energy, and carried myriad economic, security, and environmental benefits.
“In the face of today’s climate challenge, both despair and complacency are equally unwarranted.”
“For years, Amory Lovins has talked about the benefits of the soft and distributed energy path, and he founded RMI to accelerate the adoption of the soft energy path. These projections have turned out to be somewhat prophetic,” says Brehm. “It is becoming increasingly evident that this path offers a much more resilient future — and the increasing resiliency risk is forcing more and more communities and utilities to reconsider what assets they invest in.” It seems that the biggest risk is doing nothing — sitting back and assuming that “this won’t happen to me.”
In early April, I sat with Amory at lunch in downtown Basalt at a quaint community restaurant with the charred landscape from the Lake Christine Fire visible just outside the window. It seemed so strange that our community could feel so comfortable a mere six months after the fire was contained, and that it was so easy to forget about what happened and fall back into the comfort of the old ways of doing things. Things have — for the most part — gone back to “normal.” But then Amory said something that I will never forget: “In the face of today’s climate challenge, both despair and complacency are equally unwarranted.”
Thankfully, there are so many of us that agree.
This article only scratched the surface of important resilience efforts underway that carry key lessons for others. Additional resources to check out include:
“Elevating the Priority of Resilience in Our New Climate Reality,” RMI Outlet, 2016. rmi.org/blog_2016_06_30_elevating_the_priority_of_ resilience_in_new_climate_reality
Customer-Centric Energy Transformation: A Case Study of the Opportunity With Green Mountain Power, RMI, 2018. rmi.org/insight/customer-centric-energy-transformation/
Public Collaborative for Puerto Rico’s Energy Transformation, RMI, 2018. rmi.org/insight/public-collaborative-for-puerto-ricos-energy-future/
The Economics of Electrifying Buildings: How Electric Space and Water Heating Supports Decarbonization of Residential Buildings, RMI, 2018. rmi.org/insight /the-economics-of-electrifying-buildings/
The Economics of Battery Energy Storage: How Multi-Use, Customer-Sited Batteries Deliver the Most Services and Value to Customer and the Grid, RMI, 2015. rmi.org/insight/economics-battery-energy-storage/
“A Resilience Strategy Based on Energy Efficiency Delivers Five Core Values,” RMI Outlet, 2018. rmi.org/a-resilience-strategy-based-on-energy-efficiency-delivers-five-core-values/
“Rebuilding America and the ‘New Normal’ of Resilience,” RMI Outlet, 2017. rmi.org/rebuilding-america-new-normal-resilience/