Steffy: Sandy offers energy lessons

Hurricane Sandy, perhaps more than any storm in history, will help put a price tag on global warming and the cost of denial.

Amid the aftermath lurks an important message for governments and businesses: We need to improve our energy infrastructure by better protecting it from disaster.

In the Houston area, we have more experience dealing with major storms, and we’ve made some charges to strengthen the electricity grid and protect refineries from high winds and storm surges.

“What we’ve learned on the Gulf Coast I’m not sure has been transferred up the East Coast,” said John Hofmeister, head of Houston-based Citizens for Affordable Energy and former president of Shell Oil Co. “They haven’t had a lot of storms, so the kind of things that have been done on the Gulf Coast to harden the systems haven’t happened.”

Lest we become too smug, though, we shouldn’t forget that we, too, are vulnerable. We may have taken more steps to improve our electricity grid – from trimming trees near power lines to adding smart meters that can pinpoint outages and reroute power around them – but we also have balked at more expensive investments such as burying power lines.

Like the New York area, we haven’t fully accepted that catastrophic weather – from Sandy-like “superstorms” to blistering droughts in Texas – are happening with greater frequency and taking an expensive toll on the country’s infrastructure.

With an estimated $50 billion in damages, Sandy offers a powerful counterpoint to those who still deny global warming or who question the costs of addressing it.

Sandy is the second storm to hit the New York area in as many years, after Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast last year, doing an estimated $10 billion in damage.

Anthony Pizzitola, a facility and disaster recovery expert for Goode Co. Restaurants in Houston, refers to such natural disasters as “low-probability, high-impact” events.

“With the wake-up call they had with Irene, they could have been doing more predictive and preventative maintenance,” he said. “Based on global warming, they need to take a more serious approach that this is now a higher probability than there was in the past.”

For example, utilities in the region should have replaced weakened poles, trimmed trees and protected transformers, he said. While it wouldn’t have prevented all power outages, it could have lessened the storm’s impact by as much as 40 percent, Pizzitola estimated.

Generators lacking

Meanwhile, in the New York area, like the rest of the country, most gas stations don’t have backup generators that can run their pumps and cash registers. To make matters worse, refinery construction in the Northeast hasn’t kept up with population growth, and the area relies on barges and tankers for moving much of its fuel.

Fuel depots are close to the water, and many suffered flood damage, power outages or both.

Officials should have stockpiled extra fuel supplies inland ahead of the storm to make it easier to distribute, Hofmeister said.

Speedy rationing

Given the large number of people in the area, they also should have implemented rationing immediately – as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did a few days later – to cut demand until power was restored.

“When more than half the gas stations are gone and you have this surge in demand, you just can’t keep up,” Hofmeister said. “Once people start the gas lines, everybody joins the gas lines.”

The lesson for businesses nationwide, Pizzitola said, is better preparation.

Disaster recovery experts and facilities managers need to coordinate recovery plans with vendors, customers and others who may be affected. They should identify the areas that are most vulnerable to natural, man-made and technological disasters, then set priorities based on the potential impact to the business, he said.

We may be beginning to see the price of global warming, but before we can think about relying on other fuels, we need to make sure we can protect the distribution of the energy we already have when disaster strikes.

Loren Steffy, loren.steffy@chron.com, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.