During times of natural disaster, an entire network of resources and people must come together to repair and rebuild essential infrastructure that allows for provision of critical services—including medical care, clean water and fresh food—all of which require a reliable and steady source of electricity. Individual entities might provide for their own backup power with generators or microgrids that continue working when shared electrical infrastructure is down. But how can communities ensure more equitable access to electricity during emergencies? Resilience hubs are one way.
The need for resilience hubs
When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle on October 10, 2018, high-speed winds and severe flooding caused extensive damage in both rural and urban areas, to agriculture, homes and infrastructure. Initially, over 400,000 homes in middle and South Georgia were without electricity,1 and in some areas, power outages lasted up to a week.
Vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities and communities of color, are often those hit hardest by the effects of climate change and increasingly severe weather for several reasons, including the fact that they are more likely to live in vulnerable areas.2 These communities are also those with the most limited access to the resources needed to adapt to climate disasters.
As climate change increases the occurrence and severity of hurricanes and other extreme weather events, the need for equitable climate resilience becomes more and more pressing.3 According to a 2017 study, the Southeast is going to feel the impact of this change even more than other regions of the U.S.4 Adding infrastructure like resilience hubs can help communities be prepared.
What are resilience hubs?
Resilience hubs are community centers that can provide reliable energy during widespread power outages. Power is often provided by a combination of renewable energy, typically solar and battery energy storage.5 They can often include one or more microgrids, which connect independent energy resources with energy users and can be connected and disconnected from a centralized grid as needed during power outages or depending on availability of alternative energy sources like solar.6
Resilience hubs are most successful when designed with and for local communities. That means being located in welcoming and trusted community spaces (e.g., community centers, fire stations, universities and houses of worship) and being managed by community groups or organizations.7 While these structures can be used to provide various community events and services year-round, they are an essential resource during emergencies. Resilience hubs can be reliably used to support residents, distribute resources and coordinate emergency response services in times of need. As such, they serve to not only improve a community’s capacity to adapt but also to reduce the burden on local response teams.8
It takes a community
“When developing a resilience hub, it is critical to authentically engage and partner with the local community from the start to understand their specific needs and existing community assets,” said Alex Trachtenberg, Senior Project Manager at Southface. “Next, it is important to conduct a full assessment of the building for potential energy- and water-efficiency improvements, critical electrical loads for resilient power via solar-plus-storage and structural integrity of the roof for solar feasibility.”
When considering on-site or rooftop solar, it is important to implement resource-efficiency measures first, like high-efficiency HVAC, lighting and insulation, so that the building’s overall energy load is reduced and can be better supported by a solar-plus-storage installation.
To encourage community engagement once a resilience hub is created, Trachtenberg recommends designating and training facility operators how to operate and maintain their hub in emergency situations. Making resources and trainings available to the community, he says, enhances in-home resilience, preparedness and residents’ awareness of the hub.
Resilience hubs making a difference
Resilience hubs can provide substantial social justice benefits to the community, as demonstrated by existing hubs in Chicago and Baltimore, each of which is part of a microgrid. Through a 7.7-megawatt (MW) microgrid cluster, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid in Chicago serves over 1,000 low-income households, businesses and small industries.9 This cluster will also provide power to 10 critical facilities, including medical centers and the Chicago Police Department headquarters, during large-scale power outages. In West Baltimore, the Empowerment Temple, a large community church and resilience hub, predominately serves low- to moderate-income residents.10 The hub is also a center for clean energy technology and jobs training, serving as a catalyst for clean-energy job creation, workforce development and community empowerment in the city.
Microgrids on their own also provide opportunities for community resilience and empowerment via communal energy networks more broadly. The Brooklyn microgrid in New York allows for peer-to-peer energy transactions, in which hundreds of enrolled residents can buy energy from neighbors with rooftop solar.11
Further examples include Princeton University, whose microgrid served its greater community in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012,12 and Park County, Montana (population 15,636), which developed a microgrid that can provide critical services to its rural community in the event of a long-duration outage.13
What’s happening in Georgia
Georgia already has its own examples of emergency energy resilience. The Tech Square Microgrid is a collaborative project between Georgia Power and Georgia Tech, which will provide an opportunity for research on how a microgrid can effectively integrate with a larger electrical grid.14 Additionally, Georgia Power and PulteGroup’s Smart Neighborhood™ in Atlanta includes on-site solar and battery energy storage for each of the townhomes in the neighborhood.15 These are meaningful steps toward energy resilience in Georgia. As utilities and local governments consider ways to address the rising risk of climate emergencies, it is important that they continue support for their most vulnerable customers and residents by developing community-oriented approaches like resilience hubs. Integrating community resilience with energy resilience in this way ensures that those in Georgia and beyond who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change will be better prepared for climate emergencies.