Unpredıctable extreme weather has become normal in the world, which is why municipalities have started taking the initiative to make their utilities — including electricity, water and wastewater — more resilient in retaliation, especially since outages can last for weeks and crank up residents’ bills. Hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and wildfires have been known to severely affect communities that haven’t set up their utilities to bounce back as quickly, which is why taking the initiative to create a plan and strategy is imperative.
Being aware and prepared to adapt to unforeseeable circumstances is what can build a strong city infrastructure. With the ever-changing times and updated technology systems, municipalities now have resources available to use that they didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago, such as smart meters, to regulate energy or green developments that will allow gradual change to the community.
After experiencing the severity of natural disasters, coastal states had began resiliency projects years ago while more Midwest states like Minnesota decided that preparing for sustainable energy would pay off in the long run. Due to their differing extreme weather experiences, they took different routes that appear to be beneficial for their communities.
What’s happening in North Carolina?
Many cities in North Carolina have a common focus on customer service, resilience and cost effectiveness. Benson, Kinston and Wilson are three examples of cities that took the time to implement a long-term vision for a system of resilience by installing smart meters for electricity and water. Smart meter systems enable staffers to recognize problems, such as electric outages or water leaks, and address them quickly, which allows them to bounce back efficiently after unpredictable disasters.
Benson had created a long-term strategy to lower electric rates, which resulted in the investment of the smart meter. Towns like Benson and Wilson were able to move toward the smart grid system to jump on problems as they happen while improving customers’ experiences.
“In Wilson’s case, it was made all the more doable by its city-run fiber optic network, making for great communication between monitoring devices,” explained Ben Brown, the advocacy communication associate for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “That long-run spirit also motivated the town to give itself plenty of raw water and treatment capacity for the future with redundancy of service. Wilson saw the importance in redundancy and made the investment for reliable, resilient essential services. It can be tedious but our members always want to be careful about system implementation.”
Kinston has been installing smart electric and water meters, carefully observing and witnessing positive benefits such as a lower call volume during outages. Crews are automatically alerted to address them, which frees municipal offices up for communications and other important tasks. After more time and confidence is gained with the system, Kinston will plan to expand it.
“Wilson’s resilient broadband network was a major benefit. It’s powered by a number of serving facilities and helped ensure solid communications and responses to the same end,” elaborated Brown. “There are so many other ripple effects here. Another important piece is data analysis. These smart systems enable town officials to look at trends, map patterns, pinpoint problems and plan solutions more reliably than before. Models and predictability are not just great for the health of the utility, they’re also cost and potential life savers.”
What are they doing in Minnesota?
St. Cloud, Minn., has had a hydroelectric generation facility on the Mississippi since 1988, which was already a step taken towards renewable energy decades ago. As technology continued its advancement, St. Cloud sought proposals to implement solar energy into their platform. By integrating technology for renewable energy, the community has the opportunity to gradually phase green infrastructures into the area such as permeable concrete and changing street lights.
“We’re not so different from other Midwest communities. We’re just looking at more sustainable operations,” commented Public Services Director Patrick Shea. “It’s been challenging but that’s part of what makes providing public services fun. You learn new things and overcome obstacles. It’s been interesting in learning more about what renewable energy programs are out there. It’s allowed us to work more closely with providers and programs they offer with energy use. There wasn’t a lot of literature or communities doing what we wanted to do. So it was fun to venture out and start from scratch.”
One of the biggest challenges St. Cloud faced was getting decision makers on board. Unlike Wilson, Benson and Kinston who easily had backup from decision-makers, St. Cloud had to battle the misconceptions with accurate information. In a day and age where information rests at the fingertips, misinformation has been spread abundantly.
Not many states in the Midwest have taken full advantage of renewable resources yet, which has given St. Cloud a head start. The city plans to operate 80 percent on renewable energy by 2018. As the city continues forward, it plans to look into more developments and other unknown areas of renewable energy it has yet to explore such as green rooftops. By doing this, it is building opportunities by observing each building and asking, “How can we update this facility to be more energy sensitive and efficient?”
Want this for your municipality? Here’s what you do
Municipalities who have shown initiative and zeal towards creating more resilient utilities all say the same thing: Plan carefully ahead of time and don’t expect it to be a quick project. Much thought and research should go into projects like this because it is a complete shift in the community. Literature must be read and other municipalities with similar communities should be sought out for advice for this to work successfully.
Long-term visions and plans are necessary as building resilience and preparedness isn’t something that can be achieved quickly. Months or even years of data on energy use — as well as research — are required to create a successful infrastructure. It’s an all-or-nothing project that must be taken seriously with unrelenting determination from every team member.
“Make sure you have staff on board and a group of professionals around you,” recommended Shea. “People who will stay with it and (don’t) allow things to slow down. If you don’t have a champion with you, there’s plenty of opportunities for it to be delayed. You have to apply yourself and stick with it.”
Timing may also be an imperative aspect when making changes. Benson had intentionally changed over electric meters during a low-consumption, low-demand period. The NCLM sees communications with customers in North Carolina continually improving, especially in a more digital systematic age that will help towns stay ahead of problems and recover quickly while reducing costs.
“Based on the communications we’ve had with our municipalities about moving to smart grid systems, I suggest planning well ahead and don’t get distracted by other projects or special initiatives. Focus solely on the conversion,” advised Brown. “Communicate the project clearly with the customers to let them know what’s happening along the way. Be clear that any investments or changes are meant to save time, money and improve quality of life.”