12/05/2012 02:50 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Climate Advice to New York City: Act Like an Island

If British business magnet, and island owner Sir Richard Branson were to give advice to New York City's Mayor Bloomberg, he might offer him this climate change insight: "Do what I do. First assess your energy needs, then act like an island. Why? When hurricanes like 'Frankenstorm' happen, you're on your own!"

What Branson knows is this: A world that works together is wired together. Right? Wrong. As Hurricane Sandy so clearly showed, climate change, not terrorism, is the big disruptor in our highly wired world. It's the new kid on the block who is big enough and fierce enough to capture everyone's attention at the same time.

Climate change, by the way, is a game changer, not a bully.

So let's take another look at New York City. From the satellite view on Google Earth, it appears as an island. It is an island with a lifestyle that depends upon transportation and communication links to the rest of the world. Zoom in closer and you see bridges. Closer still and you see wires, lots of wires, and the tops of building bristling with cellular antennas and towers above the ground. The wires and power lines disappear into cables under the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean.

With a close-up view, you see water lapping at the edges of the island of New York City. Lower the island a foot or two on a virtual map, and you can see that water will flow inland and into any "hole" in the ground. Raise the level of the sea by the same amount, and you'll get the same result. Water flows downhill in any direction.

To a water molecule, any garden level apartment, any basement, any underground parking structure is a hole. So are the holes dug in the ground around the World Trade Center in preparation for a foundation.

A foundation for what? For a future based on a continued reliance on overhead wires for electricity and above ground cellular towers for connectivity. But wait a minute....

The two biggest problems New York City faces, says Marilyn Walker, the COO of HOMER Energy, are the vulnerability of the overhead electricity infrastructure, and the threat from rising sea levels. As sea levels rises, New Yorkers will need an in-the-water barrier. On land, they need to "think like an island," which, of course, they are!

In Colorado, after city residents showed a desire to disconnect from the major utility XCEL, in a sense isolating itself from other communities connected to Xcel's electric power grid, the City of Boulder asked the Boulder-based software company for help with its analysis of municipal utility options.

To people like Bill McKibbin, who has been on a "Do the Math" tour for the past two months, it's the rigidity of a mindset locked on fossil fuels that is the root of the problem. Other climate change experts agree. The winds of change won't change the minds of policy makers, until they are trained to think differently about how our world could be wired... "together."

The science analogy here is: "Brain cells that fire together, wire together." To create a different future, one that moves us away from the certainty of a Climate CLIFF and toward sustainability, requires a new set of habits. To move toward sustainability, these experts suggest, we have to rethink our energy needs, and then wire ourselves together, differently.

Imagine, for example, if every hospital, police station, tall building over 30 stories, and school in New York City had its own distributed energy system. Not just generators that rely on a power source from fossil fuels or distant source of electricity. Instead, a built-in command central for energy distribution within the building itself, that kept the lights on, and the batteries charged, based on an algorithm -- or blend -- of energy sources: energy efficiencies measures first, then photovoltaic solar panels, co-generation, wind generation, and other clean tech innovations.

This requires a redesign of NYC -- to keep the lights and power on, just in time, and as needed, when climate disruptors take the power lines down.

With this in mind, and billions of federal dollars flowing toward the shores of New York and New Jersey, isn't it about time for politicians and civic leaders to sit down with the new kid on the block and come to an understanding of who is really in charge here.