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The Importance of Resilient Infrastructure in Municipalities

Bill Fahey, Senior Vice President-Technology, Veolia North America
Bill Fahey, Senior Vice President-Technology, Veolia North America

Bill Fahey, Senior Vice President-Technology, Veolia North America

The damage caused by natural disasters last year proved that it has become increasingly important to make sure municipalities properly evaluate and manage their existing infrastructure in a way that minimizes the negative effects of extreme weather.

The way I look at resilience is by asking questions like: How well would assets respond to changing events? How robust are they? How long will it take to regain asset function after a natural disaster? The vast majority of our infrastructure was designed 75 to 100 years ago, but weather patterns have changed, and now the infrastructure must serve more people and withstand more intense weather events. Our expectation that this infrastructure can handle today’s conditions is not realistic.

There are many commercial and regulatory challenges that the energy, water and wastewater sectors face today. Access to these services is essential to sustain the health and safety of the public. Each generation has an obligation to leave infrastructure that allows for a high quality of life to continue for future generations. We cannot continue to rely solely on investments of the past to meet our growing needs and asset reliability expectations. Utility operators have done such a good job over the past 50 years, people often taken for granted that the public has access to electricity, water and wastewater services at all times.

People do not value energy, water or wastewater utilities until they’re without their services for an extended period of time. Significant investment must be made in infrastructure today, and that’s a reality society must collectively face.

 The culture of rebuilding what existed before a storm needs to become a practice of the past 

Communities that have been negatively impacted by the effects of mother nature are typically more inclined to accept the fact that existing infrastructure needs to be upgraded. These cities and towns have experienced firsthand how, in an instant, utility assets can be lost for long durations. These disruptions have lead to loss of life, economic activity and very expensive personal and economic consequences.

We need to evaluate our existing infrastructure to prepare it to withstand more intense and frequent severe weather events. As part of this evaluation, utility operators need to look at ways that assets can be hardened to have a better chance of operating throughout a storm. This can be something as simple as moving critical controls, assets and systems out of flood prone elevations. Future capital infrastructure investments need to consider flooding, wind and extreme temperature changes in the initial designs. It’s also critically important that we keep the existing utilities functioning as we plan for the future.

Hurricane Maria, the storm that hit Puerto Rico and other islands in the summer of 2017, would be a difficult storm for any place to withstand. A significant portion of Puerto Rico’s electrical distribution infrastructure was destroyed during this storm when strong winds wreaked havoc on the overhead power lines. The failure of the power utility caused cascading reliability challenges on the island’s water and wastewater utilities. The storm left behind severe economic damage; many industries were forced to shut down, and hospitals were challenged to keep service levels. Many people lost homes and livelihoods as a result of this event, while others went months without basic services that are commonplace in today’s society.

Whether it’s on an island or the mainland, there are ways municipalities can prepare themselves to be better suited to handle a severe storm. We need to look at our infrastructure differently; microgrids, energy storage and district energy solutions need to be considered. It makes sense on an economic and environmental level to modernize electrical distribution and generate energy near the places that are consuming it. These different energy solutions can provide safe, efficient and reliable energy to the end user.

Energy conservation always needs to be considered in any program, and consumers of energy need to make investment decisions that include a focused approach to reducing electrical use. The combination of energy conservation with local generation and distribution of electricity can bring great value and reliability to the end user. Resilience, in a lot of ways, is simply having adequate redundancy. If there are multiple ways to provide energy, there’s less of a load on the primary source. Also, if one source should fail, the other can operate as a backup, and the energy supply isn’t completely lost.

It’s clear that our utility infrastructure is in need of investment. Electrical, water and wastewater assets are vital to public health and safety, while also necessary to support our economy. Utilities, business leaders and the public sector need to take a long-term approach with their investments, and consider future projects that acknowledge the challenges of extreme weather.

The culture of rebuilding what existed before a storm needs to become a practice of the past, as we move forward in modernizing utility operation and planning. There will always be a bigger storm on the horizon, but the decisions that we make today can go a long way in reducing the negative impacts that we may encounter tomorrow.

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