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Powering up for more resilient buildings

When Superstorm Sandy struck the U.S. Eastern seaboard in 2012, millions of people and businesses were left without electrical power for days on end.

May 06, 2016
Aurora-Place-building,-Macquarie

A lucky few kept the lights on, thanks to resilient power sources nearby but Sandy proved just how vulnerable commercial properties can be, causing an estimated $5.7 billion in lost economic productivity.

Climate change is making adverse weather events increasingly common; in this new reality, resilience is critical for cities, building owners and their occupants. Traditional emergency measures, such as having an onsite back-up generator, may be fine for temporary power outages, but the possibility of extended periods of time without power from the grid call for higher-tech emergency response plans. And these back-up plans are not just for hospitals, they’re for everyone.

“Few cities or building owners of the past planned for wind, rain and flooding of the magnitude we’ve seen in Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy or the Pacific tsunami,” explains Michael Jordan, Managing Director, JLL Consulting. “The increased frequency of these devastating storms means that emergency response planning is more important than ever before. Every company needs multiple back-up plans, including one to keep the lights on—and another to get them back on rapidly even when the rest of the city is still dark.”

Micro-grids keep the lights on

Now more than ever, utility companies and cities are working to “harden” the power grid to withstand disasters. True power resiliency means integrating a myriad of energy sources, back-ups and systems both within and between buildings. To do so, collaboration is critical among municipalities, property owners, utilities, regulators and building occupants.

Prioritizing the safety of citizens, local authorities focus on retaining and returning power to critical operations such as traffic signals, prisons, hospitals and cell phones. But for many corporations, that means longer waits for a return to normal operations. “The best plan is to do everything possible to avoid a power outage in the first place,” Jordan says.

Prevention is the best medicine

You can’t stop a storm, but you can be prepared for it. Just as new issues like climate change have emerged, so have new capabilities to predict, model and manage operational risk. New construction and maintenance approaches, along with innovative technologies, can also provide better protect power systems from failure. For example, high-tech mapping technology and drones can help recovery crews assess damage and deploy appropriate crews more rapidly.

Microgrids—in which a building or small power plant generates power independently of the municipal grid—are catching on nationwide as cities and organizations recognize the value of being energy self-sufficient. The U.S. Department of Defense, for instance, has become a renewable energy powerhouse in its pioneering use of microgrids in military installations. In a civilian example, the U.S. Federal government has partnered with the state of New Jersey, New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to build a microgrid to power the transit system in Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken.

Building power resiliency begins at home

Some building owners aren’t waiting for the next natural disaster to test their ability to keep the lights on. In our data-intensive era, downtime isn’t an option. Building managers are testing backup systems regularly, and creating neighborhood microgrids to provide energy self-sufficiency and hedge their bets against future storms.

“Traditional emergency measures, such as having a back-up generator onsite, don’t necessarily hold up when a power outage lasts for days and fuel refills aren’t available,” says Simone Skopek, Program Director, JLL’s Energy and Sustainability Services. “So, building owners and investors, along with the major corporate occupiers, are looking in a few directions for more reliable solutions such as alternative energy systems and microgrids.”

Technology is also making it easier for companies with multiple buildings on the same site to put in place a comprehensive back-up plan. “Today’s smart building technologies make it easier for even a single commercial office building to provide power to multiple other structures nearby,” explains Skopek, who oversees JLL’s Building Emergency Management Assessment (BEMA) program.

“After Superstorm Sandy, the New York University campus still had power because it had a 13.4-megawatt combined heat and power plant able to distribute energy to the university’s 26 connected buildings.”

If ensuring business as usual isn’t incentive enough, power resilience has an added benefit for both corporate bottom lines and the environment: it tends to make for greener buildings. That’s because strengthening resiliency often means adding energy conservation and renewable energy sources into the mix.

In the pre-internet era, the occasional blackout was merely inconvenient. Today, the stakes are higher. Storms are more volatile, and more people, companies and building systems are increasingly technology-dependent. Investment in power resiliency is helping reduce the losses of tomorrow’s major storms, wherever they may occur.

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