Megan Lickley: Adapting Energy Infrastructure to a Flood of Uncertainty

Apr 01, 2011
Megan Lickley: Adapting Energy Infrastructure to a Flood of Uncertainty

We may always crowd stores for last-minute essentials before a storm. But how can we prepare years, and even decades, ahead of the next big one? Megan Lickley is shedding a little light for the energy sector before she leaves MIT.

“As we saw during Hurricane Katrina, severe storms have major consequences on energy facilities, specifically through storm-induced flooding ,” Megan says. “As sea level rises and storms become more severe, the risk to these facilities will likely increase.  We need to decide how or if we’re going to adapt to these changing risks. Should facilities be protected, or abandoned, or should we continue with business as usual? These are decisions that need to be made. We can’t really make these decisions if we don’t have an understanding of how the risks are actually changing.”

Studying the impacts of hurricanes and sea level rise on coastal energy infrastructure—and specifically in the energy hub of Galveston, Texas—Megan looked at the change in the risk of flooding 100 years from now.  By isolating her analysis to a single facility, she developed a risk analysis that included the changes in risks from tropical storms, sea level rise and subsidence, and further developed a framework to help decision makers make the best decisions  to adapt to the changing risks.  These risks vary depending on location and time-frame.  For her case study of a facility at five feet above sea level, Megan found that risks increase from a one percent chance of flooding today to as much as a 45 percent chance of flooding in 2100.

Megan says it’s important for people to understand these risks and be ready ahead of time, especially considering the damage from Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans’ reaction after that disaster.

“After a place has been struck, the fear factor is more vivid and the willingness to respond and plan ahead is much greater even though the risk isn’t any higher,” Megan says, “Having public and political support is a critical part of actually adapting, but you don’t want a place to be destroyed in order for them to want to protect themselves. Understanding the increased vulnerability and making decisions based on true risks will ensure the best results.”

This research gives energy organizations some of the knowledge needed to act.

Megan thanks MIT’s Kerry Emanuel and Ning Lin for giving her the storm intensity data she needed, as well as her advisor Jake Jacoby for his support each step of the way.

As for what’s next? Megan hopes to continue doing collaborative research projects in the climate-energy realm—a future inspired by her work in the Joint Program, where Megan has enjoyed learning “a lot about different components of the climate change issue” from her fellow researchers.