Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Will Sandy Boost Natural Gas?

Living in a hurricane danger zone, I think it is crass to look for winners and losers too soon after a tragic storm like Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy.  Hopefully enough time has passed to make an observation.  One of the bright spots after the storm, especially in New York City, has been the region's natural gas distribution infrastructure, which seems to have weathered the storm very well.  Additionally, many natural gas users for cogeneration and vehicle fuel have found themselves at an advantage over other New Yorkers, which has been attracting lots of media attention.

A portion of the campus of New York University and the Co-op City high rises in the Bronx didn't lose lights and heat because they get their power from highly efficient on-site natural gas-powered generators.  These distributed generation power sources feed microgrids supporting each facility.  Likewise, natural gas fueling stations (the few that there are in the NE) were back up and running quickly.  No waiting for the gas truck - all they need is a functioning supply line and a backup generator.

In the next few years, I expect there will be a minor economic boom in the Sandy-impacted regions with the rebuilding of infrastructure and the payout of insurance monies.  Unfortunately, most of that money will be used to rebuild things the way they were.  There is a psychic benefit to restore things to the way they used to be, and it's much faster than reinventing the proverbial wheel, but people of the region must also ask if there is a better way to do things.

After Hurricane Katrina, we in Louisiana spent lots of money and effort in restoration efforts to get things back to the way they were before the storm, but we also had to ask if there was a better way to protect ourselves from a future of potentially worse events in the future.  The combination of an eroding coastline with  rising sea levels and changes to the climate make increased damage from big storms inevitable.  In Louisiana, we have dedicated our attention and resources to rebuilding man-made storm protections (levees, walls, gates, etc.) and rebuilding our wetlands.

Areas like New York and the New Jersey shore are considerably closer to the water and need to rethink how they live with their looming threats.  Infrastructure there wasn't built with the expectation of tidal surges and tropical storms.  Would you build a subway today so close to a rising ocean?  Would you put your utility and communications infrastructure underground?  Would you be so dependent on an aging centralized power grid?

Natural gas looks like it will have a seat at the table in the conversation that is sure to arise once people pick up, sort things out, and take stock of a future that is completely different than the one envisioned a generation ago.  Natural gas cogeneration (as well as other alternative fuels), natural gas vehicles and increased use of gas in heating homes are likely beneficiaries of a rebuilding plan for the Northeast with a view to the future.

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