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Continuing Sandy Aftermath, New Nor’Easter Underscore Complex System Fragility

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Here we are, a mere nine days after Sandy, and what would ordinarily be a mere “sorta bad” winter storm is doing disproportionate harm by virtue of coming so close on the heels of the hurricane. But even this storm has two characteristics which are troubling: first, high wind speeds (up to 60 MPH) which are bringing down trees in hard hit New Jersey, and unusually heavy snow for this time of year. This storm may beat snowfall records for New York City for a storm in October or November. Remember, both more extreme storms and unusual weather patterns have been predicted as results of global warming.

Things are so bad in New Jersey that it’s getting hard not to feel sorry for Chris Christie, along with other residents of that battered state. From CBS:

Exactly as authorities feared, the nor’easter brought down tree limbs and electrical wires, and utilities in New York and New Jersey reported that nearly 60,000 customers who lost power because of Sandy lost it all over again as a result of the nor’easter….

“I am waiting for the locusts and pestilence next,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. “We may take a setback in the next 24 hours.”…

On New York’s Staten Island, workers and residents on a washed-out block in Midland Beach continued to pull debris — old lawn chairs, stuffed animals, a basketball hoop — from their homes, even as the bad weather blew in…

At the peak of the outages from Sandy, more than 8.5 million customers lost power. Before the nor’easter hit, that number was down to 675,000, nearly all of them in New Jersey and New York.

This image comes from a photo series at Time by Eugene Richards of the devastation in Staten Island:

And the cation to picture 8 was revealing: “Clothing, blankets, supplies and water, mostly donated by fellow Staten Islanders, are distributed at Egbert Intermediate School in Midland Beach.” As Lambert chronicled in Campaign Countdown, not only were NYC efforts to deliver supplies and help to Staten Islanders thin, but supplying Central Park for the marathon was given priority and when it was cancelled, the city couldn’t be bothered to get the water and Mylar blankets to the sodden, cold borough.

The Financial Times tonight has a good report, which does not reflect the impact of the mini blizzard, on how Sandy has done real damage to the fuel shipping infrastructure. The piece interweaves considerable discussion of the New York harbor to futures traders; we’ll stick to the physical side. Key extracts:

Bulk terminals contain plenty of fuel, but stations have been running dry after Sandy damaged docks, tanks, pumps and power lines across the region. The situation puts a spotlight on the harbour’s status as the hub of the global petroleum products market and raises new questions about security of energy supplies…

“It is a very critical node for the east coast physical market, for the financial market and for the international market,” says Antoine Halff, head of the oil markets division at the International Energy Agency, the western countries’ oil watchdog. “The price in New York resonates across the world.”

The harbour is the meeting place for petrol delivered by pipeline from the Gulf of Mexico, by tanker from countries as far away as India and from nearby refineries…

Sandy exposed the vulnerabilities of this decentralised supply network, shaking futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange. As November-delivered gasoline last traded October 31, prices briefly surged by as much as 7.7 per cent. And traders say a handful of physical cargoes have in the past week traded at an almost 10 per cent premium to the prevailing price in the futures market, emphasising the scale of the disruption in the harbour.

The US government on Wednesday released data showing how hard Sandy hit: East coast refined product imports fell 63 per cent last week…

The Exxon station across from the biggest terminal, known as IMTT in the city of Bayonne, was operating on an electric generator before turning away cars on Tuesday. The nearby Phillips 66’s refinery in Linden, New Jersey, splashed by salt water, will take weeks to return to normal.

This is all good talk, but how much follow through will we see? Perversely, the financial traders might undermine efforts to come up with a more robust delivery system. Again from the FT (emphasis ours):

A combination of oil companies with big trading arms, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, trading houses such as Glencore, the investment bank Morgan Stanley and less-known distributors such as George E Warren, import fuel to the harbour. Analysts and executives say tank storage has shifted from a logistical function for integrated oil companies to an asset around which to trade

Rapid growth in fuel exports from the US Gulf of Mexico coast threatens the harbour’s dominance in fuel pricing. But its status as the centre of the futures market will be hard to break.

“It’s like you’ve got this firetrap singles club that has 500 people and then a spanking new one with nobody on the dance floor. Which one am I going to go to?” asks Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. “I’m going to the firetrap.”

If you see worries about fragile delivery systems and the risks of extended supply chains fade quickly from financial news, it’s likely that even after Sandy, companies and officials lack will to take issues like infrastructure risk seriously. And when predictable bad things happen, the costs will again be borne by ordinary citizens.

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25 comments

  1. Clive

    I’m always surprised to see that there is a pretty healthy and sizeable market in the USA for domestic standby generators.

    While many of these for sure may be being purchased by residents of more rural properties that can’t account for the volume of sales. It does seem that many communities which are not what you’d consider small or remote are effectively on what is known in the electricity distribution industry as “single circuit risk”. Which means if a tree fells a power line, there’s no redundancy. And I’ve commented before on the inexcusable practice of using overhead — exposed and vulnerable — power lines in urban areas. Talk about an “accident” waiting to happen.

    So, the power grid lack resiliency. This is because the utilities aren’t compelled to make appropriate investments in hardening the system. I don’t know for sure the reasons buy I guess the local commissions are ether under the sway of the utilities or else they don’t want to annoy utility customers by forcing through rate increases. The latter is understandable but ultimately self defeating. Utility customers need to be able to afford higher utilities to pay for a more robust grid. However, stagnant real wages for most make it an easy choice to press for rate freezes or too small increases. The “price” they pay of course is in situations like the Sandy aftermath. There, they get to enjoy being forced out of their homes through lack of winter heating or possible health impairment through lack of summer cooling. Seeing the pictures on TV, it’s distressing to see people suffering from the effects of a slow-motion managed decline of essential infrastructure.

    The winners — or maybe better put “ones who avoid losing” are those who can afford their own standby gen set. These, of course, are typically more affluent types who live in the ‘burbs with access to funding for capital expenditure and space for the equipment.

    Same solution to this one as pretty much everything else: more disposable income, less extractive TBTF enterprises (i.e. the utility co’s) and a willingness to embrace long term thinking like funding and improved asset base with a high up front cost but an economic lifespan of 50+ years. I’m not holding my breath.

    Do hope everyone impacted is staying safe — and warm.

    1. Carol Sterritt

      The best way to achieve resiliency is to promote and and all ways for individual home and apartment owner to provide energy for those who live beneath the roof. Fifteen years ago this wasn’t possible economically speaking. But now, in many communities, when it is sunny, solar on the roof or in the back yard can provide the home’s power.
      And when it is not sunny, then the wind turbines can be utilized. Wind turbine technology is now affordable, and it is not even visible to those who would complain about “clutter.” People in my neighborhood in No calif. who have the wind turbines have a little bit of construction over the unit – the housing for the turbines resemble a single attic fan. Not even any bigger than that!
      Of course, as recently discussed here on NC, the main reason we have such weirdly non-resilient systems to provide our power is that the utility companies love those depreciation schedules! And of course, the utilities also love the on-going payments we customers are forced into making.
      And let me add: it is not only a California strategy. I hear many houses in Chicago are doing the wind turbine/solar approach to providing their own power.

  2. Norman

    We get a glimse of the underbelly in our infrastructure picture, but, will anything change? There is no profit to be made in repairing without taking advantage of those who can’t afford it. How far down that slippery slope this country has fallen, perhaps beyond hope of regaining that once proud position of strength, that built the country. One has to ask where the moral entegrity is, or maybe it’s no longer an option?

    1. Dan The Man

      I worked this and last week on the electrical grids branching out from the sub-stations supplying power to these areas, what struck me and what a lot of people don’t realize is that the damage is so intense because of flooding in area’s that have massive infrastructure electronics and controls that have never been flooded in the history of these facilities. Not only must these areas be repaired but in my opinion re-engineered in wake of three-100year storms in the last year and a half(global warming)

      1. redleg

        How much of the damage is to old or specifically built components?
        Off the shelf stuff can be replaced, repaired or modified quickly. The other stuff can’t, and won’t. The damage is going to take a while to fully repair, much longer than most people expect.

        1. Dan The Man

          You hit the nail on the head, alot of the components had to be dried and cleaned and polished because they literally dont exist anymore other then what you can track down, we basically got lucky and were able to bring existing stuff back on line. spare parts exist but not on this massive scale.

          1. redleg

            Fabrication of large electrical devices (transformers, etc) can take months, and then there’s issues related to transporting and installing (underground) large items that can take weeks.
            I wouldn’t be surprised if there are portions of the electrical system that may be off line for the winter.

            I hope people don’t get killed by extention cords strung between buildings.

            Anyone know how the utilities are going to fund response/repair? Stafford Act only covers up to 75%, and the number is going to be huge. Do they have enough insurance? Disaster bonds? What measures are in place to make sure that they don’t get Montgomery-ied?

    2. lambert strether

      This is really appalling, and thanks for this. The commercial weather channels are dedicated to promoting fear and hysteria as opposed to reliable information. Another candidate for being turned into a public utility — now usurping public functions.

  3. TMC

    Many of my neighbors here on Staten Island are still without power. Many left yesterday to stay with other family members, friends or to shelters. I worry about those who stayed because the danger of hypothermia is insidious.

    It was exceptionally callous of the Road Runners and the Mayor’s office not getting the supplies for the Marathon to those in need on Staten Island, as well as, Brooklyn and the Rockaways. The fact that the two generators from Central Park, which sparked the vociferous media protest over running the Marathon, are now sitting idle in storage in NJ is just inane. Those generators could power at least one or two apartment buildings.

    On an interesting note, Gov Cuomo has fired his chief of emergency management after learning that he deployed government workers to clear a tree at his Long Island home during Hurricane Sandy.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/nyregion/cuomo-fires-new-yorks-emergency-management-chief.html?hp

    Nice to see Mr. Cuomo acting responsibly and making Mr. Kuhr an axample should other state employees abuse the power of their positions.

  4. Nathanael

    (1) Get out of the barrier islands. They are the natural defenses for inland areas.
    (2) Get out of the flood plains.
    (3) Stop burning fossil fuels, so we can stop the problems from getting worse and worse. This means solar panels everywhere, among other things.
    (4) Develop local redundant power sources. This means solar panels everywhere, among other things….

    We do not need government support to do these things. We do need support from the renewable energy companies. And we do need money (I’m sure lots of people want solar panels and can’t afford them).

    1. Carol Sterritt

      Actually, to stop our dependence on oil and other non-renewables, we do need government support. We live inside a nation wherein 62.5% of all the oil, nukeower and gas that is utilized is utilized by the military, before the rest is made available to the consumer market.

      I can abstain from using my car, but I certainly cannot stop any Administration from building new aircraft carriers, modernizing others, building weaponry systems, jet fighters etc. (Building these military devices takes a lot of renewables away from the planet.) Then once you get into any discussion of actually fighting the sort of unending wars we have going on and all the non-renewables used in the battles, troop bnuildups, deployments and redeployments – Yikes!

  5. They didn't leave me a choice

    Wohoo! This means we are going to have a civilisation-wide discussion on downsides as well as benefits of economic centralisation/efficiency and its inverse relationship with systems resiliency as the absolute criticality of certain infrastructure nodes to the continued survival of civilisation is realised. Resulting discussion will obviously mean that we are finally going to begin rolling out resiliency increasing decentralised production systems for energy and goods to replace current centralised and extremely vulnerable systems.

    Right guys?

    Guys?

    *cicada chirping*

  6. John Lenihan

    Drilling technology has advanced to the point where tunnels and trenches can easily be dug down and especially sideways — perfect for power lines and communications. There really is no sensible reason any more to hang essential electricity up in the air where it’s vulnerable.

    This can’t solve every problem, only about 90 percent of them.

  7. Aquifer

    Well considering that parts of Manhattan have long been on the map of places to go under with sea level rise …

    How long before folks realize that parts, at least, of the city will have to be abandoned ….

    WS giveth and WS taketh away …

    1. Lyle

      Actually for NYC north of the Narrows it takes 3 barriers like the one on the Thames to protect the city like London is protected, or Venice (Arthur Kill, the Narrows and say Throngs Neck). Its just a question of pay me now or pay me later. A large part of the problem in Manhattan relates to ground that was underwater in 1641, but was filled in. It is of course lower if you go to google earth and look at the wall street area you see the NYSE is at 33 feet, but a couple of blocks nearer the water its down to 10 feet. We do have the technology to do this its just a question of who will pay for it.

      1. Aquifer

        I dunno – maybe it’s a question of should we pay for that, or should we pay to relocate – the whole bloody history of this country consists of trying to force MN into a straight (or strait) jacket that She doesn’t want to fit in – look at the dike system along the Mississippi, and NO ….

        If we are not going to do anything about GW, we had better damn well decide what we ARE going to do about these areas because at some point the claim that they are “habitable” will be another Orwellian exercise … and giving folks the illusion that we will “protect” or even “repair” their neighborhoods will be a cruel joke ….

  8. Small.Business.Guy.1

    ” I hear many houses in Chicago are doing the wind turbine/solar approach to providing their own power.”

    Not that simple. If you go into the majority of communities in the urban/suburban areas of Cook County, putting up any wind based generation system on buildings requires permits. And they are expensive, and very time consuming/expensive to obtain. And the cost for the wind units that are not the conventional wind tower design are quite expensive.

    A Generac 17KW nat gas fired generator with a transfer switch fully installed & hooked up cost about $4,400.00 The numbers for either wind or solar just couldn’t match up.

    It’s not houses so much that are doing solar as much as ‘big box’ stores that are doing solar. And the tax credits make it worthwhile to take advantage of all the ‘free’ roof area.

    1. Aquifer

      That’s why we need(ed) a Green New Deal – putting public money into stuff like that instead of the banks ….

  9. Edward

    Hurricane Sandy was a devastating blow to a beautiful country and it is good to see so many people in discussion on ways such as solar efficiency to help the people who have been affected by it. Truly remarkable, keep up the good work guys!

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