11/14/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Adjusting to the 'New Reality'

To ease the pressure on gas stations in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey, New York City and Westchester imposed rationing rules. I know it's a good idea, but it had me a bit nervous. We don't drive our car much, but needed it for a two-and-a-half-hour trip upstate. As our car license ended in an even number, and we needed to drive on an odd-numbered day, I was worried that I wouldn't have enough gas in my tank to get out of the city and beyond the odd-even rationing zone.

I found myself wishing we'd opted for the hybrid when we bought our car a few years back. On any given day, those gas sippers could go twice as far as our car. Then I began musing whether, when we replace this car, we should buy an electric car.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, I realize, since it's going to be a number of years before we get a new car, but I'd just read with some envy that California would be building the nation’s most comprehensive electric vehicle (EV) charging network, and that it would include "fast chargers" that allow drivers to add 50 miles of range in just 15 minutes.

Ooooh, 50 miles -- I really like the sound of that. But alas, I don't live in California. I live in New York where "we have an old infrastructure" as our governor reminded us after Sandy hit two weeks ago.

Gov. Cuomo also said we have "a new reality" when it comes to weather. Which is why, according to the New York Times, he "plans to ask the federal government for at least $30 billion in disaster aid," much of which he said would be used to improve infrastructure, including replacing the region’s power grid with a "smart power" grid.

New smart grid technology, including better sensors within the distribution grid, would help utilities find and resolve power outage problems more quickly, speeding restoration of service to customers. This is critical for a utility, according to SmartGridNews, given all the hard-to-reach endpoints within the extensive grid, including substations, distribution circuits, pad-mount boxes and below-ground vaults.

EPB, the Chattanooga-based utility, expects it can cut the length of power outages by 40 percent with the so-called "self-healing grid" it is installing. There are sensor options with low upfront costs available that could potentially save a utility millions of dollars. Regional utilities should make every effort to install them before the next major storm or natural disaster.

A smart grid is more than just intelligent software, however. To make the power grid more resilient, and able to rebound quickly from extreme weather events like Sandy, also will require a greater investment in energy storage systems, clean power, and ultimately a move to a more decentralized power grid architecture.

Why decentralize the grid? Centralized energy is notoriously vulnerable to disruption from natural disasters. Though there are obvious economic efficiencies achieved by creating all of an area’s energy in one place, when one felled tree can deprive a whole metropolitan areas of power, it’s hard to make a claim that the system is prepared for disaster.

Decentralized energy eliminates this threat by creating redundancies in the power system. In the example given by GreenTechMedia, a so-called "microgrid," powered, say, by a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit, can disconnect from a grid experiencing an outage and run disruption free until the main grid is back online. There are other ways by which to "distribute" control of energy locally, such as with an energy storage system, or battery, that can bank energy for a later time, or with a renewable energy source such as solar.

Put the two together and there is a real chance that some homes or communitieis could weather the storm without losing power. As Katie Fehrenbacher explains on Gigaom, solar panels are cheaper than they have ever been, and while they "won’t help in a nighttime storm, if they’re matched with energy storage, they can bank daytime power for the nighttime critical use."

I'm thinking again about that electric car I don't have but may get some day, and wondering where I am going to recharge it here. Remember, I don't live in California, where they're installing those rapid rechargers I envy. Happily, it turns out, NYC has a lot of the old but also a bit of the new, and I just discovered that our garage is home to a Beam Charging station. With hundreds of locations currently under contract and new stations coming on line, Beam Charging, according to the website, provides the most extensive network of Electric Vehicle charging stations in New York City and the Northeast. Who knew?

But what good is an electric car if the power goes out? Not all that much, unless you can get to a place where the power is on. Or if your city goes all in on building a smart grid that minimizes the extent and duration of power outages in the area. And we all decide that it's time to adjust to the new reality, and move our homes back from the flood zone, build our buildings to be more efficient and secure, and whenever we can, drive less.