On our own?

Spring not only brings us daffodils and cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., but also occasionally powerful thunderstorms that can knock out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

I live in one of those northern and western suburbs of DC that tend to lose power fairly frequently.

It used to be that one of the few nice things about losing power was the sound of silence. But those days are gone. Now losing power has a new sound: the whirring of the startup of my neighbors’ backup generators.

We need power not only to keep our food from spoiling and protect us from uncomfortable and even dangerous heat, but also to stay connected. As a nation, we are becoming ever more dependent on electronic devices. We cannot survive without our cell phones and computers, let alone our refrigerators and air conditioners. At the same time, climate change threatens the reliability of the grid through more intense heat waves and potentially more powerful storms.

While it’s easy to say we should work to prevent disruption in electricity, how much should we invest to bolster the resilience of the grid? And who should pay?

In Maryland (as in many areas), we have collectively been underinvesting in grid upgrades and maintenance for a variety of reasons.

So individuals are taking matters into their own hands, investing thousands of dollars in backup generators to stay connected, air-conditioned and fed without interruption. 

Implicitly, then, many of us who can afford to are willing to pay quite a bit for resilience.  Buying a generator might insulate individuals from some of the inconveniences of power outages. But are we willing to contribute more to grid maintenance that would, in theory at least, benefit all of our neighbors as well? 

A recent report to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recommends concrete steps toward improving grid resilience, including how much we need to spend, and toward determining how the burden should be shared between ratepayers and utility investors. 

A more socially conscious approach to resilience would have other benefits.  These backup generators are not only noisy, but they also increase greenhouse gas emissions. (This is true on average, although the impact of specific generators depends on the mix of energy sources in that region.) These increases are small, but they take us in the wrong direction.

We need to strengthen the climate resilience of our communities to prepare for what is unavoidable, but we must also ramp up efforts to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid even more severe impacts.

Finding solutions that meet both objectives should be a high priority. And as a society, we will most likely be successful if we face these challenges, and act, together.