Post-Hurricane Harvey, Can We Build Back Better?

According to FEMA damage estimates over 105,000 structures in the Houston-Galveston region experienced damage due to Hurricane Harvey natural disaster. The City of Houston government buildings alone realized approximately $175 million in damage.  This is $100 million over their insurance limit.  Both the private and public sector are actively working recovery efforts with a desire to rebuild as quickly as possible. Most have made their FEMA claims and those that have flood insurance, only about 15% of the population, have met with adjusters and are actively pursuing their claims.

Check out the HARC Story Map on Hurricane Harvey Impacts to learn more.

As I talk with people both in the private and public sector, the underlying concern is how harvey story mapwe are going to rebuild from this natural disaster. Based on my own conversations, many know they are not going to be made whole whether they have FEMA and/or insurance. Further, these conversations reveal that many do not want to build back to what was, they want to build to be more resilient. Unfortunately, the funding to do so appears not to be available. Many would like to stay in their neighborhood and build-up, however, $100,000 which are estimates they are hearing to raise their elevation, are not in the cards.  Some may get buyouts, but that is a fraction of the structures that were affected and remain in harm’s way.

The city government and school districts are not in a much better position.  They are largely looking to restore the existing building and get services back to normal. I have not seen anything about rebuilding more resilient public buildings, but maybe we are too soon in the process. Like those in the private sector, it is unlikely they will get any funding in the near-term, state or federal, that will allow this to happen.

Beyond the individual property recovery, there is also consideration for larger infrastructure recovery and resilience improvements to mitigage natural disasters. Items include the third reservoir in the northwest of the region, the Ike Dike, speed up the completion of the of Brays Bayou mitigation project, to name a few.  Similar to individual properties, they also do not appear to have the adequate funds available.  (Except for maybe Brays Bayou completion.)

I have written in previous posts about the funding options that are available for improving the resilience of communities.  They can be found here and here.  In both of these articles, I discuss a variety of funding mechanisms that can be used to improve community resilience including green bonds, resilience bonds, and public-private partnerships.

Solution: Resilience Bonds 

I would like to focus a bit more on resilience bonds.  Resilience bonds are bonds that allow issuers to build infrastructure to reduce loss or likelihood of loss during a natural disaster event; build new infrastructure with the expectation of reducing risk. These can be used for coastal protection, sea walls, stormwater mitigating green infrastructure, etc.

For a resilience bond, the issuer would utilize a catastrophe model to determine baseline risk to infrastructure from natural disasters. The issuer would then calculate how the implementation of a more resilient system would reduce future loss in comparison to this baseline. A resilience rebate is set based on the value of the anticipated reduced loss. The reduced risk of principal to the investor and the reduced premium expense to the sponsor is captured and provided to the sponsor as a rebate. This rebate can be used for financing resilient infrastructure or risk reduction investment.

pier and beamI am not an insurance expert, but the way I understand it is that building more resilient reduces the risk of a project to a natural disaster. This decrease in risk reduces the premium of the catastrophe bond (cat bonds) which is already being issued to cover infrastructure in the event of a major triggering event.  The rebate is coming from a lower cost of cat bonds. For example, cat bonds that cover flood damage or storm surge damage, when up for renewal, can be paired with a set of resilience-focused projects. These projects will lower risk to this infrastructure, thereby reducing premiums resulting in funds available to invest in more resilient infrastructure.

By taking steps to improve resilience utilizing resilience bonds, the public sector reduces risk to infrastructure, as well as realize economic, financial benefit from the proceeds of the resilience rebate. Resilient infrastructure funding by resilience bonds can reduce economic, social and environmental risk, as well as receive financial benefit of avoided losses. Cat bond costs also continue to go down in cost as more resilient infrastructure is added to the community. Further, more resilient infrastructure would also reduce costs of individual hazard insurance, wind, flood, etc. Not only does government see lower insurance costs, so would households and private companies.

What About Individual Property Owners? 

What has been discussed here is largely focused on public sector facilities and infrastructure development. We still are lacking the mechanism for private properties, commercial and residential. This is becoming an even more urgent issue as we see the National Flood Insurance Program is under significant financial duress and is actively working on moving properties off of this insurance into the private market. One thing to consider as this $1 billion transition occurs, is for Texas to create to flood insurance program similar to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA).

In May of this year, the TWIA sponsored a $400 million cat bond and currently has $4.9 billion in aggregate funding.  This amount is anticipated to cover the current hurricane season. What can make the TWIA more sustainable, would be to consider resilience bonds as it renews its cat bonds. This would include using cat models to assess wind risk to private properties. It could then assess what strategies can be done to reduce this risk to private properties. A good guide to follow would be the Fortified Standard. If properly structured, the TWIA would see a resilience bond rebate. These rebate dollars would then be set in a fund that can be provided to homeowners to reduce their wind risk to hurricanes and straight-line wind events. The outcome would be more resilient infrastructure, less costs for damage recovery and overall improved community resilience.

Keesler Air Force Base: One year after KatrinaResilience Bonds to Mitigate Flooding for Private Sector

Can a similar process be considered for the flood insurance market? There appears to be a healthy appetite for cat bonds by institutional investors. What would it take for the state to issue flood-related cat bonds? Can the state accurately assess flood risk for the private sector? There is ongoing concern about the accuracy of our flood models and floodplain maps, particularly along the Gulf Coast. If we can agree on the risks, can we identify the appropriate risk mitigation strategies for individual structures? I would not think that is an impossible task. We would then need to quantify the avoided loss with the implementation of these strategies. This would create the rebate. This resilience rebate could then be available for individual property owners to implement the mitigation measures. The result would be lower individual premiums, lower recovery costs and an overall improvement in community resilience from natural disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

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“All the Above” Climate Adaptation

For long-term resilience to climate change, flooding is not the only issue we must deal with at this time. In light of the current situation, it is easy to place all of our efforts on reducing flooding risk. We have a tendency to focus on the most recent event and ignore extreme heatother threats to our well-being. It is human nature to do so. However, taking a narrow view on one particular issue could be detrimental to the Gulf Coast’s long-term well-being.

Granted with Hurricane Harvey, the Ike Dike and Coastal Spine have garnered a significant amount of attention. This is interesting due to the fact that Hurricane Harvey’s flooding would in no way be mitigated by this infrastructure. In any case, it is good to see flooding not being the only issue discussed.

As important as it is to work on our flooding and storm surge issues, three floods in three years and storm surge with Hurricane Ike, we must also keep in mind that Texas is one long-drought punctuated by torrential rainfall. It was only five years ago that the entire state experienced a significant drought that resulted in considerable damage to our road infrastructure, water distribution systems, power generation, livestock and agriculture and our St. Augustine (The last is a joke. We really should get rid of this stuff, it is a huge waste of water.) In any case, droughts are a real issue that we cannot ignore.

Drought

I have mentioned the drought experience and future risk for our power grid in previous posts. The first one looking at our current predicament and the second considering what our future grid faces.  I have not covered the variety of other drought-related issues that we have recently faced and may face in the near term. During the 2011-2012 drought our drought texashorizontal infrastructure, pipes and street, faced considerable issues, particularly our water system in Houston. At one point, during the drought over 700 pipes per day were breaking. It is estimated that 15%, 22.4 billion gallons of water, was leaked and never made it to the end-user.

The drought also caused an estimated $7.6 billion loss to the farm-sector.  The hardest hit being the livestock industry and hay production. Closer to the Gulf Coast, we see that the drought greatly damaged the rice industry and placed its future in question. As we move along the Gulf Coast, we see that the drought also had a significant impact on the Gulf ecosystem with elevated salinity levels. This damages oyster beds and fisheries that are dependent on freshwater inflows from the Colorado and Brazos River.

Extreme Heat

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Also, as many are aware, it gets hot in Houston, and it is expected to get considerably hotter. Between 1981 and 2010, the Houston region averaged 31 days over 95 degrees. If climate models are correct, it is anticipated that the number of days will triple to close to 90 days per year at or above 95 degrees. These temperatures are already having an impact on the region. For example, the City of Houston has put in place an extreme heat emergency plan and had to put it in action the Summer of 2016. This heat not only melts and warp infrastructure, it is a significant public health issue for those who work outside, as well as those vulnerable populations that do not have access to appropriate air conditioning.

The heat is anticipated to have a significant economic impact on the Gulf Coast. A recent Science article looked at the economic consequences of climate change in the United States. The study finds that there is likely to be a significant transfer shift of wealth from southern states up to northern and western states. It looks like there will be a point when it will get too hot in the kitchen and people will get out…

Public Health – Vector-Borne Diseases 

The factors mentioned above will have public health implications, whether it is contaminated flood water or extreme heat and humidity. Other public health issues we anticipate with a warming climate, is the increasing number of vector-borne diseases (VBD). This is largely the spread of disease to humans through ticks, mosquitoes, and flies. West nileWe have been dealing with West Nile virus for a few years and recently have started to see Zika get a foothold in the region, the most recent south of Houston in Hidalgo County. Ticks have been a nuisance for years, particularly the ones carrying, Lyme disease. 

It is anticipated that we should expect a greater number of disease transmission with increasing rainfall and humidity, rising temperatures and human migration. Rainfall, humidity, and temperatures provide ideal breeding grounds (except it can get too hot for mosquitoes) and migration allows for the introduction of creatures that otherwise may have a more difficult time making it to the Gulf Coast. Limiting these impacts will require that we set up robust sentinel and surveillance programs to identify the arrival and movement of these diseases around the Gulf Coast. This should be coupled with prevention methods that reduce standing water, as well as public health education programs.

All the Above Resilience 

As we move forward with improving our economic resilience, we must keep in mind two things. First, community resilience and adaptation is a regional issue. Taking action as an individual community or county and not coordinating with others in our region may likely be a waste of money and time. Second, we need to approach resilience holistically and not solely focus on one issue. It is easy to focus on just flooding at this time, but we should not forget that just a few years ago the entire region was dealing with a historic drought, is now regularly facing extreme heat days and seeing an increasing number of VBDs entering the region. So, as we move forward, we need to work together and take an all the above approach.

Build, Flood, Repeat: Buyouts Needed with Increasing Gulf Coast Climate Risk

After Harvey, more people have asked whether we are going to stay on the path of build, flood, repeat? The Houston region has had thousands of properties go through this pattern at least twice in the last few years. With growing climate risk, one could argue it is time to beat a retreat from flood prone areas. Tax payers and flood insurance policy holders continue to subsidize this repetitive process and the federal, state and local government have been slow to do much about to reduce this risk in the Houston region.

With Harvey, buyouts have been discussed a bit more than in the past. There appears to Harvey_flooding_(36527844190)be a greater appetite for such an approach to mitigate flood risk. After Hurricane Sandy, the state of New York and New Jersey, spent a combined $700 million to buyout about 2,000 homes. Since 1980 the County and City have bought out about 3,000 homes, with both federal and local dollars. After the Tax Day floods last year, Harris County received about $11 million to buyout 60 homes.

It is estimated 136,000 structures flooded with Hurricane Harvey. Many of them for the first time. Fortunately, the region is realizing that it can’t practically and affordably protect homes and businesses from floods. Harris County is looking to buyout some of the repeat flooders. Many parts of the region that have flooded time and time again are being placed on a list for buyouts. Areas that seem to be receiving the greatest focus include Greenspoint, Meyerland and neighborhoods around Ellington Air Base in south Houston.

Last week, Harris County submitted a property buyout application to FEMA for $17 million. This may cover about 104 homes. This was in addition to the $20 million the Commissioners Court approved to buyout about 200 homes with Harris County dollars. It is shy of the $2.5 billion estimated by Harris County Judge Emmett required to buy out about 3,000 homes in highly flood prone areas.

hurricane harveyNo matter the number of buyouts, there are both positives and negatives to buyouts. First, buyouts can provide significant benefit by removing areas from flood prone areas and thereby lessen overall flood recovery costs. A recent report finds that since 1998 the federal government has paid $3 billion to Houston for flood losses.  Further, by removing these properties, more permeable land and green space becomes available. This green space can better absorb water and potentially reduce flood risk.

However, the other side of the argument, is that these buyouts can also ruin neighborhoods. There are communities that have had the same families for generations and buyouts would significantly change this community network. This is particularly a problem in low income communities that are largely dependent on these networks for their livelihood and well-being. Further, these buyouts are voluntary, so it is not necessarily the case that all residences will be vacated. City services would still have to be provided to these areas, which can be expensive if properties are spread out. Finally, buyouts may also reduce the tax base of a community. A buyout will require these families or businesses to move elsewhere and it may not necessarily be within the same town or city. In Texas, where we are highly dependent on property taxes for revenue, loss of communities due to buyouts, if significantly large, may have a negative impact on tax revenue.

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Regardless of these pluses and minuses, the truth is that properties that have flooded multiple times and should be bought out will not have the opportunity. The cost is too high to do a full-scale buyout of all flood-prone areas.

Further, in a place like Houston, it really could flood anywhere, as we have seen in many of our storms in the last few years. Harris County Flood Control is starting to be more forthright in the fact that there is not a whole lot that can be done to completely mitigate risk. On the Harris County Springs Flood 2016 site it recommends that residences and businesses should take individual precautions and buy flood insurance. In other words, we are going to flood again, we can’t prevent the flooding no matter what we do and so you better take responsibility to mitigate your own risk.  Unfortunately, this 2016 message did not get out. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, only 15% of Harris County structures have flood insurance.

Rice FASIf the 2017 $60 million Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget is any indicator resources really are not being put toward any significant upgrades or improvements to infrastructure. $25 million was to build new infrastructure and $12 million for rehab projects of existing infrastructure. We are faced with a $20 billion problem just in the Harris County region, the CIP and other existing funding sources are not going to solve the problem.

To conclude, the city and county will attempt to do what it can to mitigate risk. The resources are few and not adequate to completely reduce flood risk. No one has the financial appetite to do so. The recommendation is to buy flood insurance, no matter where you live in the Gulf Coast. By living in this region, you have chosen to live in flood prone marshland and coastal prairie. To reduce your risk, “Know your Risk.” Resources are available, they are not great, but they are better than buying a property and then realizing you live in flood pool on the back of a three sided reservoir.

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Need help with buyouts and other resources?

Specific to Harvey, if you are interested in learning how to get a buy out, you can check out the Harris County Web Site. In general, if you have experienced flooding due to the recent storms, FEMA’s site provides details on how to participate in buy-out programs.

 

 

Ensuring Electric Power Resilience in Face of Climate Change – Federal Testimony

On October 3rd, I had the opportunity to testify in front of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. It was a great opportunity to discuss electric power resilience in the United States in respect to climate change. I wanted to share the testimony. Please see below. Also, here is the link to the video testimony.

Testimony before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee:

Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Johnson, and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I

electric power climate resilience
Pink Sherbet Photography from Utah, USA

am Gavin Dillingham, Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC and I am pleased to provide testimony on the resilience of the United States’ power infrastructure, particularly in respect to the risks posed by the increasing number of extreme weather events.

HARC is a non-partisan research institute in The Woodlands, TX. We were founded by George Mitchell in 1982. The organization was founded to conduct research and analysis that can be shared with communities to help with their decision making. Our researchers focus on areas of water quality and supply, air quality, ecosystem services, and energy, both clean energy deployment, as well as research to reduce the environmental impact and improve the health and safety of upstream oil and gas operations. HARC is an inter-disciplinary organization so many of us work across these disciplines to improve the resilience and adaptive capacity of our communities.

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the findings of Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity System report. This report is very timely and important. It pushes forward the discussion that we must have to ensure a more resilient power system. A key area of interest for me is the discussion related to the increasing number and intensity of extreme weather and their current and future impact on national electric power system. These systems must be designed and constructed for a multitude of extreme weather events. To give you a Texas example, in recent years, Texas has experienced some pretty extreme weather patterns resulting in significant power outages and disruption to communities.

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First, there was the state wide drought in 2011 and 2012. This multi-year drought placed considerable pressure on power generation. Most power generation is dependent on water for cooling.  During the drought there was either not enough water to cool the plants or water was too warm for cooling.  During 2011, ERCOT, the organization that manages the Texas grid, was concerned about losing “potentially several thousand megawatts” if the drought did not end. There were also plants during this time curtailing operation at night so they would have plenty of water to provide power during the day, as well as plants that were piping water from other sources to ensure they could operate.

A recent paper by Argonne National Lab “Impact of Future Climate Variability on ERCOT Thermoelectric Power Generation” considered the drought implications for the ERCOT grid. The findings indicate that out to 2030, unless we become less dependent on water, the Texas grid could face severe stress due to lack of water availability both in drought and non-drought scenarios, as well as derating of thermoelectric plants due to high water temperatures. This stress on the power system due to water supply is not limited to Texas. It is an issue particularly across the western United States.

Most recently we have had to manage extreme flooding events, three five hundred year plus flood events in the last three years.  The most recent being two weeks ago with the arrival of Hurricane Harvey. Harvey dumped about 27 trillion gallons of water along the Gulf Coast, about 86,000 Astrodomes worth of water, and left close to one million utility customers without power. The other two floods were the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and the 2015 Memorial Day flood. The Memorial Day Flood flooded communities stretching from the Texas Hill Country to the Gulf Coast. Flooding can cause significant damage to transmission and distribution infrastructure, particularly substations. The potential long-term duration of floods can significantly delay the restoration of power to communities where substations and other power infrastructure are inaccessible.

I would be remiss not to mention Hurricane Ike in 2008. Ike caused power losses for over 2.1 million customers in a service territory of 2.2 million people. Many of these customers did not have power for over two weeks. This is a fairly small number when you consider the power outages from Hurricane Irma, at over 9 million and Hurricane Maria cutting power to nearly the entire island of Puerto Rico.

Beyond droughts, hurricanes and floods, Texas also deals with on averages 146 tornadoes per year, more than any other state, and has had to deal with two of the largest fires in recent history, the Bastrop Fire in 2011, small in acreage but with a large price tag of $325 million and the 2017 fire in the Texas panhandle which scorched 750 square miles.  Not only did 2017 bring Harvey and the Panhandle fire, a large ice storm blew through the Texas Panhandle in January cutting power to 31,000 customers.

This is just an example of one state that has had significant stress placed on its power system due to extreme natural disaster events. Similar stories of extreme weather events can be told across all states. The Department of Energy published a report in 2013, titled “US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather” that goes into significant detail concerning the problems power systems have experienced and will experience due to extreme weather.

The events listed above very much parallel the findings of the report. Natural disasters are increasing in number and intensity and this puts our existing grid at considerable risk. A problem faced by the power industry is that there is not just one type of natural disaster placing stress on the power system. There are multiple pending disasters. Further this does not include cyber or physical attacks to these system. The problem with all of these pending threats is that it is very difficult to determine the timing, the location and intensity of these events. With this level of uncertainty and when resources are limited, it is very challenging to make the appropriate investment decisions.

My expertise is not with cyber or physical threats, I can only speak to natural disaster threats. Due to the multitude of natural disaster threats, we have seen the development and growth of what is called the adaptation gap. Due to uncertainty of timing and intensity of natural disaster events, decision making can be hampered. When decisions are not made, infrastructure is not built. When the natural disaster events occur our systems are not prepared. The result is significant damage and loss to our communities, environment and economy. Unfortunately, most of the US is largely in a reactive mode of loss recovery, rather than focusing on loss mitigation and resilience. This is not to say there are not some efforts underway, particularly on the east coast with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, but there is considerable work that still must be done.

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Uncertainty is the enemy of action. Fortunately, we are seeing the development and deployment of down scale regional climate models that can provide significantly improved information on the likelihood of future extreme weather events. Texas Tech University Climate Science Center is doing great work in developing down-scaled models that are being shared with key decision makers as they conduct resilience planning. Better visibility into future climate patterns will improve planning and decision making across all critical infrastructure, particularly our power generation systems.

There are two key areas I would like to discuss a bit further. First, the potential lack of water supply available to existing and future power systems and one solution, microgrids and their current deployment.

The NAP report suggests there will be an increased likelihood of water stress across the United States. This is due not only to drought, but increasing competing demands by communities, agriculture and industry. The ANL report mentioned above provides a nice explanation of water constraints.

At present, the United States current power generation portfolio is highly water dependent; approximately 85% of power generation requires water to operate. This does not include hydropower, rather this is water to cool coal, natural gas, and nuclear based power generation systems.  Fortunately, systems that do not require water to produce power are being actively deployed across the country, largely in the form of wind and solar generation systems and to a growing extent, battery storage, micro-grid and micro-grid combined heat and power (CHP) systems. However, to date, the speed to which these systems are being deployed does not look to significantly shift the grid away from water dependent power generation resources in the near future. This has been well illustrated in the Department of Energy’s 2017 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO). Some argue the AEO is too conservative and place projections of solar and wind at 35% of total installed capacity by 2050. Regardless of what projection you accept, both still have over 60% of the power system dependent on water.

The highly anticipated DOE Grid Reliability which considered the impact of renewable energy on grid reliability finds that increased deployment of solar and wind does and will not negatively impact the operation of the grid. The technology and capability is available to quickly deploy these systems, unfortunately, policies and regulations do not.

As with any infrastructure system a key issue is the availability of funding. Two key funding mechanisms that could increase the deployment of renewable energy is to allow renewables to participate in master limited partnerships, similar to fossil fuel assets. Second, accelerating the deployment of green bonds to fund renewable infrastructure. Although there has been a growing number of green bonds issued for green infrastructure, there is still some hesitancy due to what defines a green bond, what can be funded by these bonds and how they can be positioned in the financial markets.

Two other key issues are the lack of interconnection standards across many states and an old-utility model that still largely cannot account for the benefits provided by distributed energy resources (DER). Granted, there are some utilities that are doing great work and actively working on valuing and deploying DER. However, the current patchwork of activity does not allow for a rapid deployment of DER and/or utility scale systems.

Federal and state policy makers should consider the development and deployment of power resilience standards such as PEER (Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal). PEER is a rating process designed to measure and improve sustainable power system performance. Very similar to the LEED building rating program. PEER is a voluntary program that utilities and power providers can work toward. A PEER rated power system meets strict criteria for reliability and resilience, operational effectiveness and environmental standards.

One final note on DER concerns the growing deployment of microgrids. These are mini-power systems for a building, campus, neighborhood, that typically have a variety of generation resources working together including a combined heat and power system, solar panels, and/or batteries. Microgrids and particularly microgrids with CHP are being considered more often to increase the resilience of critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, wastewater and water treatment plants, police and fire stations, data centers, emergency centers, etc. It is estimated that approximately 3.7 GW of microgrid systems will be deployed by 2020. Small in comparison to other resources, but a very important resource as we look for systems that are resilient and have demonstrated their efficacy through a wide number of natural disaster events.

Microgrid CHP systems have on multiple occasions demonstrated their ability to stay online during and after significant natural disaster events, with the most recent example being the new CHP system at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston during Harvey. The deployment of these systems have seen a significant level of support from, the Department of Energy. The DOE has been actively working to increase the deployment of CHP through its Better Buildings Initiative Resiliency Accelerator and the Combined Heat and Power Technical Assistance Partnership.  It is recommended this technical assistance continue.

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To conclude, the tendency is to count the number of hurricanes and extreme weather events and make that a key climate metric. The numbers are increasing, there is uncertainty when exactly there will be a material increase, but that is largely irrelevant as the intensity of these storms increase, which they have. There is considerable agreement by the climate models that they will continue to do so. We are not prepared for this growing intensity, much less an increasing number and intensity.

Natural disaster threats are real and are now directly impacting the operation of our grid. If we continue business as usual, systems will become only more vulnerable. The economic and societal disruption costs will continue to increase and recovery will become less sustainable due to growing demand on constrained resources. The technology and systems exists that are being deployed now to limit this risk. However, significant barriers still exist, particularly funding, regulations and utility models that hinder the deployment of theses resilient systems.