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Microgrids and Resilience to Climate-Driven Impacts on Public Health

Gundlach, Justin M.

“Resilience” has burst into the lexicons of several policy areas in recent years, owing in no small part to climate change’s amplification of extreme events that severely disrupt the operation of natural, social, and engineered systems. Fostering resilience means anticipating severe disruptions and planning, investing, and designing so that such disruptions, which are certain to occur, are made shallower in depth and shorter in duration. Thus a resilient system or community can continue functioning despite disruptive events, return more swiftly to routine function following disruption, and incorporate new information so as to improve operations in extremis and speed future restorations. As different policy communities apply the concept of resilience to their respective missions, they emphasize different objectives. This article examines how the definitions adopted by the public health and electricity communities can, but do not necessarily, converge in responses to electricity outages so severe that they affect the operation of critical infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities, hospitals, and cooling centers. Currently, such outages cause a form of handoff from utilities to their customers: grid power fails and a small constellation of backup generators maintained by atomized campuses, facilities, or individual structures switch on, or fail to switch on, or were never purchased and so leave the location dark and its equipment inoperative. This handoff is operational, but it reflects legal obligations—and their limits. Enter the microgrid, a specially designed segment of the electricity distribution grid’s mesh that can either operate seamlessly as part of the wider grid, or as an independent “island” that serves some or all of the electricity users within its boundary even when the wider grid fails. Microgrids can, but do not necessarily, mitigate the adverse public health implications of the handoff that accompanies widespread and severe grid failure. To encourage the convergence of public health and electricity policy priorities in decisions about microgrid siting, design, and operation, this article makes several recommendations. Some of these should ideally be taken up at the federal level, but the bulk of the work they recommend should take place at the state-level, and would necessarily be implemented at the state and local levels.

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