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Commentary

Resilient urban energy systems

Munich, Germany—In the midst of increasingly urbanized Philippines and calamitous extreme-weather-related disasters that frequent its urban centers, national and local governments and planners are now acutely aware of the many challenges in providing urban sustainability. Many of them have undertaken extensive disaster planning and worked on elaborate rapid response systems.

Dedicated city disaster management teams have also been working around four key areas: risk reduction, preparedness, response, and recovery. But more needs to be done, especially in the often-overlooked strategies for improving urban energy system resilience. They could be made more resilient by introducing options that decouple these systems from the central power grid. Microgrids provide options.

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Most disaster plans, however, are focused on strengthening existing large-scale power networks. This means that in the Philippines, bringing back power postdisaster entails months of rehabilitating the grid. Resilient energy systems in the age of wrenching change means disaggregating them—not just shoring up centralized, large-scale energy infrastructure.

In the urban setting, disaggregation calls for veering away from this monolith and, instead, moving toward exploiting the opportunity of local generation and storage and smart microgrid. Disaggregation helps ensure that critical infrastructure, such as disaster command centers and evacuation areas, will continue to have power post-disaster. To do this, we need to move toward site-specific urban energy systems. The source of energy must be more local. The system must be responsive to local needs. Blending these energy systems with lower carbon objectives is also necessary.

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To accelerate progress in establishing resilient and sustainable urban energy systems, several steps can be taken, and may require new approaches. National and local disaster planning authorities should support and embark on a project that reach out more intensively to the distributed energy, storage, and smart grid production chains.

A simple representation of this system can be visualized as follows: Some solar rooftop PV and wind renewables are installed and tapped to generate community electricity. With some storage support from batteries and a backup diesel genset, they are then connected together in a microgrid that can then be remotely monitored and controlled.

We also need new tools and methods of analysis to know how resilience and adaptive capacity of our urban energy systems can be optimized. Postdisaster, for example, some neighboring microgrids may need backup. This gap can be filled by a nearby microgrid system.

Innovative financing will also be necessary. Suitable mechanisms need to be designed, such as cross-subsidies where conventional electricity is levied to provide a direct subsidy to sustainable microgrids. Subsidies of this kind, at any rate, should be results-based and need to be linked to some form of equity capital.

While some technologies are in place to support the objectives and strategies of resilient and sustainable urban energy systems, more awareness-raising remains imperative. As ordinary Filipinos become energy producers and participate in a mini-electricity network, some forms of capacity strengthening are necessary to help them understand this new role.

Such responsible citizenship is also required to ensure the resiliency and sustainability of our urban energy systems as they keep up with the growing challenges of climate change and the shift toward an increasingly urbanized Philippines.

Dr. Laurence Delina ([email protected]), of South Cotabato, is a sustainability scientist at Boston University where he leads a research project on the future of energy, and a Rachel Carson Fellow at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. His latest books are “Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: war mobilisation as model for action?” and “Accelerating Sustainable Energy Transitions in Developing Countries,” both from Routledge-Earthscan.

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