Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, heatwaves and even pandemics—we can’t do much to prevent or secure ourselves from these natural disasters. But controlling how much havoc they wreak on buildings and infrastructure is more manageable.
Engineers, architects and building owners are taking a closer look—and there’s a place for electrical contractors to join them—at shoring up the buildings and power systems already in place as well as in designing new infrastructure with resilience in mind.
In a nutshell, infrastructure resilience (whether a commercial building, bridge or power station) is the ability to reduce the magnitude as well as the duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure largely depends on its ability to absorb, adapt to and recover from a disruptive event. Renovation work can make a vulnerable building or electrical system much more resilient.
It’s not only a concern in storm or quake-prone states such as California, Florida and Texas. Builders across the United States are trying to create more resilient structures and make site improvements. Many cities and building owners are starting with assessments that show what environmental hazards the area—and therefore the structures and electrical infrastructure—face in the coming years. Electrical-system interruption is one of the top concerns when it comes to building infrastructure. That means shoring up electrical services—including the substations—ensuring backup power and creating smart electrical planning for storm-prone buildings.
Fayetteville, Ark., for instance, has partnered with the University of Arkansas to explore potential events that could affect safety and health. The city’s environmental director, Peter Nierengarten, is leading sustainability planning and development.
Nierengarten said that, when through its resilience assessment, the city identified extreme heat, drought and heavy precipitation or flooding as potential hazards in the coming years.
The study found that extreme heat poses a key threat to the electrical infrastructure “since the heat can stress the infrastructure and create additional A/C demand,” Nierengarten said, adding that heat puts more load on the system at the same time that it is already being stressed.
These kinds of challenges can be addressed by building up electrical system redundancy. That work is predominantly underway at hospitals and government buildings, but consensus from those interviewed for this story was that it will also be a trend in residential, commercial and other buildings going forward.
Fayetteville has started work underground while considering renovation for building resilience and electrical infrastructure.
“The majority of the city’s work has been around hardening our sewage treatment, collection and pumping infrastructure against flooding,” he said.
Additionally, the city is looking at its new building projects with an eye to addressing potential storm and weather impact. Locations under consideration for the new police station headquarters and five fire stations are in places where they will not flood and can be hardened against extreme weather.
In January 2018, the city adopted an Energy Action Plan as an effort to make the system more energy-efficient and sustainable. The city added ground-mounted solar photovoltaic panels at the two wastewater-treatment facilities. The panels, which are expected to generate 18.3 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of clean energy per year, are installed on a sun-tracking system that rotates the panels to absorb a maximum amount of sun.
“Our biggest energy-saving and resilience project is our wastewater-treatment plant solar arrays,” Nierengarten said. “The solution is intended to save money, reduce electricity use as well as reduce exposure to rising electricity prices.”
There are layers of building improvements, according to Tripp Borstel, head of transformation design at Engie Impact, New York. In a webinar, he explained that the outer layers—technology, economy and infrastructure—are driven by inner layers: nature (climate change), governance and culture. Engie Impact is a group aimed at sustainability planning.
“Those inner layers have more inertia; they’re harder to move,” Borstel said. “But the pace of change is accelerating, with more natural catastrophes. Nature is forcing change among culture and governance.”
That means economy, infrastructure and technology are beginning to change, as well.
“We often get stuck by culture and governance, and that is making our economy more vulnerable,” he said.
The interconnection of electricity services makes coordination between utilities, building owners, engineers and contractors a benefit up-front.
The result is there’s a tension and trade-off between allocating resources for immediate response to crises and the need for long-term security. Cities are often at the front line to address that.
Philadelphia is planning around a municipal energy master plan, said Christine Knapp, director of the city’s office of sustainability.
Philadelphia’s projections indicate that the city should expect a hotter, wetter climate in the coming decades, Knapp said.
This includes increased heat and duration of heat waves and flooding due to sea-level rise (despite being 90 miles inland) and increased frequency and severity of storms. The city released a climate-adaptation study in conjunction with reducing its contribution to climate change. In fact, renovations will be needed since, according to the study, the city’s building and infrastructure were designed to withstand past climate conditions, not those that scientists expect will occur in the future.
Philadelphia Gas Works is the largest municipality-owned gas utility in the country, and efforts are underway to transition it, with renewable natural gas, hydrogen, geothermal and compressed natural gas vehicles as well as expansion into liquefied natural gas, Knapp said. The utility will transition to assist with energy storage and microgrid services, smart city technology and community solar development.
Better planning for equality
“What keeps me up more at night is the heat issue, because it is so insidious,” Knapp said.
Average surface temperature measurements through the city can vary by as much as 20 degrees. The city has found distinct lines drawn based on communities—especially communities of color—in which there is a lack of tree canopy and a predominance of black roofs and dark surfaces that draw heat in.
“Our office engages a few vendors to provide planning, engineering, design and implementation support for city climate and projects,” Knapp said. One such program, Guaranteed Energy Savings Project in partnership with Johnson Controls at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will cut energy use by 20 percent.
Philadelphia is also hoping to launch a citywide climate-adaptation planning process in the coming year that would engage external stakeholders to help build a more resilient city.
On a broader level, the National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington, D.C., conducts its own surveys to measure and predict the benefit of building resilience undertaken now for future events. The nonprofit, launched in 1970, focuses on public and private sector construction and the environment.
According to Jiqiu (JQ) Yuan, executive director of NIBS’ Multi-Hazard Mitigation and Building Seismic Safety Council, you need to consider three factors when planning a renovation or new construction: risk, resilience and sustainability. The risk is expressed as the relationship between a particular hazard that might degrade the performance of the infrastructure and the consequences that could result from that degraded performance.
NIBS typically brings together volunteer experts from the community, industry and consultants when considering resilience. They represent “everyone whose business or scholarship touches the built environment,” said Keith Porter, vice chair of NIBS Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council, and principal investigator of NIBS Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves Study. Porter also is a research professor with the University of Colorado Boulder and principal of SPA Risk.
The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure largely depends on its ability to absorb, adapt to, as well as to recover from a disruptive event. Renovations can make a vulnerable building or electrical system much more resilient
NIBS has investigated such mitigation measures as the cost of upgrading underground utility lines to protect from wind and ice, elevating substations or hardening substations throughout a seismic area. Substations are vulnerable due to the large amount of equipment in the substation that could be damaged by shaking, Porter said.
NIBS’ American Lifelines Alliance (ALA) looked further into hazard mitigation. The ALA has found, for instance, a cost-benefit ratio for mitigation efforts in shoring up electric substations to provide a payback in a matter of a few years, Yuan said.
The traditional way of thinking is to build for current weather cycles and, as a result, building code changes have been reactive as well. First something goes wrong, such as a fire, resulting in development of new codes. Additionally, Yuan said, a vendor comes up with a new gadget or something like solar panel technology becomes more prevalent. These trends affect building codes today. He sees that changing in the future, with better planning leading the way.
And it starts with better collaboration. Yuan argued that the interconnection of electricity services makes coordination between utilities, building owners, engineers and contractors a benefit upfront.
Consider the hypothetical example of a pumping station for a water utility, Porter said. The transformer provides step-down power, and the utility engineers select a certain transformer and a location, thinking about current and fire prevention. The contractor takes it from there. But the contractor isn’t cross-trained in structural engineering. For that reason, such stations might be unanchored on the plinth pedestal. Then, an earthquake happens, which severs the conductor that leads from the plinth, and an electrical fire results.
Yuan wants to advance dialog between the electrical engineer and structural engineer, which would lead to “a much more safe, stable, resilient electrical station, or other services such as pumping stations and water-supply system,” Porter said.
The key message for electrical contractors is to work with the stakeholders, since they too have an interest in making a structure more resilient.
Customers value resilience at the onset and in renovations, Porter pointed out.
“Owners and tenants place an economic value on a resilient construction,” he said. “It means landlords’ revenue is more stable, tenants’ business is more reliable and there is a higher resale value.”
With that in mind, he said, electrical contractors should be involved in the conversation during planning and should keep an eye on the benefits a more resilient design will provide for their customers.