Resilient Infrastructure: The New Goal of Innovation

Resilient infrastructure. For the industries responsible for America’s infrastructure, the concept seems simple enough: infrastructure should be able to withstand a powerful, unexpected blow without collapsing under the impact. Yet, a closer look reveals a more complicated issue.

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In a 2015 article, the Center for American Progress (CAP) noted that resilience today is tied to new causes and consequences: “In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ rating and recommended increasing investment in infrastructure designed to ‘withstand both natural and man-made hazards.’”

Simultaneously, the CAP reported that “the Government Accountability Office listed climate change as a top risk to federal operations, assets, and programs and earlier this year put the government’s exposure to climate change at the top of its list of high risks.”

Thus, resilience is a response to a new risk profile confronting the world — one linked closely to man-made hazards. Creating resilient infrastructure requires an understanding of this challenge.

 

Defining resilience

Threats to our resilience are still emerging. From extreme weather and rising tides to water depletion, the common thread is this: all are, in one way or another, the unplanned fallout of carbon-based energy. Resilience is a protective shield against such devastation being driven by the unintended consequences of technology.

As the matrix of our economy and society, electricity infrastructure is a critical component of U.S. resilience; centralized power generation and the grid are easy targets when catastrophic events occur. The dependence and vulnerability of the utility infrastructure are the overriding context by which new power generation technology is increasingly evaluated. They anchor the framework within which infrastructure resilience is defined.

But also within that framework is the building stock, which uses 70% of electrical power. Broadly speaking, reducing the energy demand of buildings means reducing dependency, and reducing dependency means reducing vulnerability. But energy-efficient buildings also enhance resilience by widening the range of employable power generation and distribution options.

Buildings that consume high levels of energy demand high capacity and centralized generation, and rely heavily on the grid. High-performance buildings, on the other hand, offer the prospect of cutting electrical power needs to levels that can be met by renewable energy and distributed generation technologies. However, energy efficiency can sometimes mean reducing equipment redundancy, which can, in turn, affect resilience. Building and system designs that seek to improve resilience through efficiency need to address that tension. But if resilience means reducing dependence and vulnerability, then highly efficient buildings need to be a factor in the equation.

The resilience-utility-building relationship identifies another variable: economics. It is widely recognized that building owners choose less energy-efficient options to contain upfront costs, decoupling technological possibilities from deployment realities. At the micro level, the issue is about establishing better market incentives, but at the macro level the question is whether investing in energy-efficient and high-performance buildings represents a net economic gain. If high-performance buildings are an economic growth engine, resilience is not just a shield. It is also a growth strategy.

 

In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at the resilient infrastructure as an economic growth strategy.

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