The way we deliver electricity isn't working

By my count, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left upwards of 15 million people without electricity after making landfall. And while power was restored to the majority of those people in a relatively short time (kudos to those tireless workers that bust their asses to make that happen!), there were/are still a few to several million that have gone extended periods of time without the ability to turn on a light, refrigerate food, or run an air conditioner.

And as you might imagine, these modern luxuries are pretty important to folks living in places such as southern Florida in late summer. 

It looks like the hardest hit places, such as the Florida Keys and many of Carribean Islands, are likely to go weeks without power. Weeks!

That seems absurd to me. How is it possible for such a large chunk of the most developed country on earth to be brought to its knees by such a regularly occurring natural disaster? Yes, I know Irma was quite the storm, setting records by a number of measures. But places like Florida are no strangers to hurricanes.

And yet time after time we watch the horror unfold in the news reports of entire communities thrown back into the dark ages every time one of these nasty storms hits. How many Katrinas, Irmas, and Harveys do we have to rebuild from before think, "Gee, maybe we should try something different"?

Because it's not like there isn't going to be another big ass hurricane. In fact, we've been told for years that the climate is changing and increasingly massive storms such as these are exactly the type of thing we should expect from a warming climate. 

Yet as soon as we finish hauling away the debris, we'll go right back to constructing more condos and retirement communities that we'll power with overhead electric lines supplying juice from a generating facility that probably burns fossil fuels. Then when it all blows down in the next "big one" we'll throw a few billion more FEMA dollars at it and start over (Irma is expected to total about $150 billion). 

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

What's the definition of insanity again?

But maybe in the midst of all this disaster and chaos, there's an opportunity. 

What if, with just a fraction of the dollars it'll take to rebuild these storm-ravaged communities, we rebuilt our electric grid with future resiliency in mind? 

What if the communities that rise from the ashes mud were stronger and better equipped to handle the future storms that are sure to come? 

What if the structures we built in the aftermath of these disasters were capable of producing at least some of their own power and therefore at least partially immune to the certain future destruction of our antiquated electrical grid?

And what if the investment made in rebuilding today's storm-torn communities made it easier and cheaper for other communities to build such resiliency into their infrastructure?

I'm referring of course to an investment in solar power. 

Imagine if just a fraction of the residences and buildings in the storms' paths had already invested in rooftop solar arrays. Imagine if even a fraction of the structures left standing in the hardest hit areas could produce even just a little power during the day. Imagine if even just a few places could crank out enough juice to power some refrigerators or A/C's during the heat of the day.

It could literally save lives. If nothing else, it would ease the recovery process a bit. Just think about how much burden it would take off the aid workers if homes could refrigerate their own food or their own medicine. How much easier would it be for a community to recover if, instead of standing in aid lines, those residents could focus on rebuilding their lives and their communities?

This resiliency concept is not new. Hurricane-prone states have been pushing it for quite some time. New technologies, building methods, and of course, regulations and codes have all been adopted to help make communities more resilient. But it's only been recently that the concept of resiliency has included sustainable power generation. 

Ironically, it was just this year that the Babcock Ranch in Punta Gorda, Florida finished its first model homes in the 17,000 acre master planned community - the first completely solar town in America. 

Did you catch that? Completely solar!

Sure, 2-bedroom homes in this community will run you $400,000 or more (or way more), but that's probably not that much more than you'd expect for a home in a planned community in southwest Florida. 

I've tried to find some reports about how the community held up to Irma and the best I could turn up is one of their Facebook posts stating that after giving employees a week to recover at their own homes, the community would be fully operational. It's apparently built on higher ground so there was no flooding and they sustained only minimal wind damage to building exteriors. 

Interesting indeed. I may try to reach out to the folks down there at the Ranch and have a little chat with them about this resiliency concept. Maybe that'll be a future post.

Now I understand that what I've proposed here in this post is a grossly oversimplified version of a rather complicated issue. Solar power is still a relatively young and increasingly complex technology. Especially when you talk about implementing it on a community scale. Add to that the fact that nearly our entire "modern" electric grid (and the companies that own them) uses the same systems and technologies that powered homes a century ago. Overhead power lines are basically knob and tube systems. If you've ever attempted a remodel in an old house, you know what an antiquated system that is.

I admit, I'm no electrician or engineer. I don't even really understand how solar systems work. I just know from experience that they do.

A couple years ago, I purchased a basic 12-volt solar panel and charge controller and installed it at my duck blind to run a few light bulbs and the spinning-wing decoys we hard-wire out in the decoy spread. Since installing the panel, which we only expose to the sun when we leave for the day, we've never had to lug a battery home to charge it. Endless power.

That system was so effective, I installed an identical model at the "off-grid" rental cabin we have at work. We mounted the panel at an angle on the south-facing front of the cabin and it keeps a small car battery charged enough to run a few LED light bulbs in the cabin every night. We're nearly through the second year on the system and we have yet to have anyone claim they ran out of power. I have no doubt we could hook a small inverter to the system and provide a 110v outlet to charge cell phones. But that would defeat the purpose of being "off-grid."

Granted, neither of these small, very basic systems are running refrigerators or air conditioners or other energy-intensive appliances. But there's no reason the systems couldn't be scaled up in size enough so they could. Babcock Ranch is proof of that.

And like I said, this technology is in its infancy. So don't for one second believe that the technology can't be developed to meet demand. We haven't had the technology long enough to know what it can't do. Every time the thought of "that's not possible," or "easier said than done" crosses your mind in reference to solar technology, remember this:

Before 1907, there were a lot of people that said man would never develop sufficient technology for powered flight. But as we all know, a couple dudes by the name of Orville and Wilbur Wright proved them wrong.

It's worth noting that the Wrights weren't engineers. Nor were they rich. Nor did they have the backing of any government agency. They were bicycle mechanics. They self-funded their flying experiments with the proceeds (and a number of parts) from their bike shop. They tried and failed time and time again. By all means, they were not destined to be the ones to figure out the mystery of powered flight. The United States War Department was spending a butt-load of money at the exact same time paying some of the nation's most brilliant minds to figure out how to put man in the sky.

And yet Orville and Wilbur did what a bunch of highly compensated Ivy-leaguers couldn't. And I agree with Simon Sinek when he tells this story in his book, "Start with Why." The Wrights were motivated by something bigger than money, fortune, and fame. They believed that if they could get man to fly, it would change the world. And that, to them, was worth all the investment, all the failed attempts, all the wrecked prototypes.

And the thing is, they were right. It did change the world.

Now jump forward 55 years to 1962. Powered flight is commonplace. The Russians had already put a man in space. But there arose the dream to take it a step further (and to one-up the Russians). John F. Kennedy stood before 35,000 people at a stadium at Rice University in Houston, Texas (nothing like a bit of irony) and galvanized a nation to rally behind the idea of putting a man on the moon.

On July 20, 1969, a mere seven years after Kennedy's speech in Houston, the first two humans (Americans of course!) walked on the surface of the moon.

Today, a century and change after the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight, both air and space travel is commonplace. Hell we've had people continuously living on the international space station (which is powered by solar) for more than 16 years now. If Elon Musk gets his way, we'll be inhabiting Mars in no time.

Which is good, because at the rate we're going, we might need to find a new planet. But before we get to that point, I think we have some real opportunity to follow some new dreams.

I don't need to be an electrical engineer to have a dream for a better future. A future where solar power is the standard in places like the Sunshine State (even though Florida is actually only the 5th sunniest state, right behind Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas).

I want a future where communities are better prepared to handle natural disasters (which may be less frequent/intense thanks to the fact we would have to burn less fossil fuel). A future where power costs less, its delivery is more reliable, and the things that consume it are more efficient. A future where even our transportation system is powered by electricity generated from renewable sources such as the sun.

What fraction of a hundred-something billion dollars are we willing to invest in that future?

What's a future like that worth to you?