How the Most At-Risk Cities Are Preparing for More Power Outages

East Coast cities are expected to experience more hurricanes and more blackouts in the coming years.
by | March 5, 2015

Facing a future where extreme weather events are more common, cities on the East Coast are building up their resiliency to power outages.

At-risk cities,  especially those on the East Coast that haven’t historically had to prepare for hurricane-induced problems, are trying to improve their infrastructure and emergency plans to prevent power outages.

A recent analysis from Johns Hopkins University ranked Philadelphia as the second most likely city in the United States to experience more power outages.

"If I’m mayor of Miami, we know about hurricanes, we know about outages and our system has been adapted for it," said Seth Guikema, an assistant professor of geography and environmental engineering at Hopkins. "But if I’m mayor of Philadelphia, I might say, ‘Whoa, we need to be doing more about this.’"

And it is.

While city officials don’t oversee the local power grid, they’ve started creating contingency plans for what every city office must do in the case of a power outage, according to Adam Agalloco, Philadelphia’s energy conservation coordinator. In addition, the Office of Emergency Management worked on a local energy access plan to coordinate widespread emergency response.

"In emergencies, [different offices] have their plans, but those plans are typically kind of isolated," he said. "The local energy action plan, as I understood it, looks at what the city is going to do for water utility, natural gas and to start to triage in a bad situation."

In 2008 PECO, the city’s energy provider, installed smart meters in every residence and business to tell residents how much power they’re using and also help the city see where power outages are across the city.

"This kind of added resiliency to our electricity grid," Agalloco said. "PECO can triage and see what’s going to affect 100 customers and work their way down to those smaller issues."

A National Governors Association report last year found that much of the grid’s infrastructure was designed in the late 1950s, making "it vulnerable to disruption and limit[ing] its ability to take advantage of computer-controlled operations."

Matt Werner, the infrastructure program manager in Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, said the city has also sized important buildings for back-up generators. By pre-assessing buildings for what type of generator they’d require -- and purchasing some -- the city knows exactly what type of equipment each facility needs ahead of time. The office has also let officials know where gaps in infrastructure resilience exist.

"We can’t control the grid. We can’t make it more resilient. So we need to work out planning for those disruptions," Werner said.

An October report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found rising sea levels will cause more flooding in towns along the East Coast and Gulf Coast in the next 15 to 30 years. Steve Clemmer, director of energy and research analysis there, said rising temperatures and sea levels "can exacerbate the impacts of hurricanes and make the flooding go further inland and cause lots of damage."

In preparation, more cities have completed vulnerability assessments to judge their preparedness for handling the increased likelihood for power outages. Boston, for example, conducted a $40 million community resiliency study of how solar power could provide back-up energy during a power outage at hospitals. After Superstorm Sandy, New York City also went to great lengths to improve its response to future storms.

Superstorm Sandy, which hit the northeast in fall 2012, was a “wakeup call” for cities that don’t typically experience hurricanes. New York City -- which the Hopkins study ranked as most at-risk -- was one of the cities hit hardest by the storm. More than 285,000 customers lost power in Manhattan, some for almost two weeks. That prompted officials to form a 200-person task force to come up with recommendations for readying the city for another major storm.

The group’s most important recommendation, according to Russell Unger, the executive director of the Urban Green Council that helped lead the group, was that buildings over five stories should install one drinking water tap for every 100 people in the building to keep buildings from having to evacuate. During the storm, 375,000 people were instructed to evacuate. City buildings now have eight years to implement the change.

The biggest divide for how cities have to handle power outages comes down to whether or not they have high-rises, according to Unger.

"You have to know how to get people in and out of buildings. If your population is elderly, you have a huge problem on your hands if you have a power failure," Unger said. "In cities that are single-family homes, you don’t have to worry about vertical transportation anymore."

Mary Ellen McIntire | Mary Ellen McIntire |