Safeguarding the Resilience of Power and Transportation Infrastructures during Transitions to Sustainability

Posted: July 20, 2017 at 3:23 pm, Last Updated: July 20, 2017 at 3:24 pm

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Elisabeth Graffy, Arizona State University
Lucia Gauchia, Michigan Technological University
Winslow Burleson, New York University
Elizabeth Chalecki, University of Nebraska-Omaha
Jacqueline Tidwell, Arizona State University
Ellen B. Stechel, Arizona State University

Global reliance on fossil fuels for electric power and transportation energy raises a spectrum of concerns about societal stability and well-being, not in small part because these systems produce 56 percent of the emissions responsible for anthropogenic climate change.[1] A vision of a sustainable future featuring electrified vehicles and shifting power generation from fossil fuels to low-carbon renewable sources (like wind and solar) has captured the collective imagination and dominates research, policy, and social media.[2] The combination of rosy global economic forecasts for renewable energy technologies,[3] compelling thought experiments that support the feasibility of full reliance on renewable energy,[4] and the rapid adoption and plummeting costs of solar and wind infrastructure[5] leads many to assume that this vision is irreversibly underway. However, this sustainable future scenario of an electrified, renewable, and interdependent power-transportation system remains significantly understudied from a resilience perspective.

Two-Pronged Resilience Agenda

We argue for an urgent ramp-up in an engaged research agenda that focuses on decision-making, particularly in cities, as the means to accelerating and securing resilience during transitions to sustainable power and transportation systems. We also argue for a larger focus on resilience governance along with resilience engineering.

Resilience scholarship emphasizes flexible and “smart” automated controls that help technological systems adapt and recover from crises such as extreme weather, terrorism, or acute deterioration.[6]  Physical protection and hardening of critical infrastructures has become a national policy priority.[7] This concept of intelligent, adaptive physical infrastructure that is smart, flexible, adaptable, and self-healing depends on improving resilience engineering. The capacity for smart, flexible, adaptable, and self-healing societies depends on improving resilience governance, which remains theoretically and operationally under-studied, underappreciated, and poorly developed despite wide agreement about the necessity of attending to human dimensions of resilience.

Human dimensions are not simply barriers to be overcome or a set of behaviors to modify. People create resilience through decisions and actions. The fact that human error can be a factor in disruptive events does not diminish the fact that the design of interdependent critical infrastructures and securing higher levels of resilience depends on human foresight and ingenuity. This dependence may be particularly so under conditions of profound experimentation and redesign, as in the case of electrical power and transportation transitions.

Critical Decision-Making in Cities

With resilience governance as the lens, we look with new eyes at the growing number of cities in the United States and worldwide that are taking the lead and setting ambitious goals for transitioning to renewable energy, marked by significant investments in solar innovations, electric vehicle charging stations, and pledges of carbon reduction and even carbon neutrality. Critical decisions take place through zoning, permits, building codes, neighborhood plans, commercial developments, road construction, and utility services.

The risk of tensions between sustainability and resilience goals as cities convert their aspirations into action bear some reflection. Municipal leaders do not have ready access to tools that enable them to make reliable strategic decisions at the necessary scope and scale or to either foresee or contend with unprecedented snags and hurdles that could occur. How can city managers work toward both sustainability and resilience goals at the same time with reasonable confidence? How can multiple cities coordinate their actions to achieve collective goals? Deficits in decision-making may not reflect lack of technical knowledge or literacy but a lack of structured support for the capacity to explore the unknown, the unexpected, and the unprecedented along transition pathways. Resilience governance research and development (R&D) can promote new discoveries while simultaneously addressing the core challenges of practice.

For city leaders, setting ambitious goals for clean energy and climate action are consistent with long-running public preferences for renewable energy and with climate concerns that are at a three-year high across the political spectrum.[8]  By spring of 2017, thirty-one American cities had publicly committed to going 100 percent renewable and at least seventy-five pledged climate goals.[9] After President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate action, a massive outpouring erupted with hundreds of cities, universities, and corporations pledging to uphold the United States’ Paris climate goals even without federal leadership.[10] Within days, seven state governors, nineteen state Attorneys General, and nearly 300 city mayors pledged to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and meet “clean” energy targets[11] (note that meeting 100 percent renewable does not mean zero carbon emissions). These numbers will likely continue to climb, and private foundations and philanthropies will likely increase their own investments in decentralized climate action. These trends make coordination and systems thinking, as well as more explicit attention to the phenomenon of human decision-making as a widespread occurrence, all the more critical.

Human-Centric Investigation

Fundamentally new insights into how electrical power and transportation systems can co-evolve at nested scales (local, regional, national, global) can emerge from a dual focus on sustainability and resilience. Practical tools that are ready for deployment at the municipal scale where many decisions are being made can capture these insights in ways that properly inform decision-makers about the possible implications of options, but more fundamental research is needed on decision-making itself under conditions that are now confronting municipal leaders. This research ought to feature three human-centric investigation themes.

First, recognize human decision-making as a core factor in resilience. Adaptive mechanisms in electrical power or transportation systems can fail under cascading disturbances (decompensation); conflicts between local and global requirements for adaptive behavior (cross-purposes); and institutional lock-in (over-reliance on past successes and outdated behaviors).[12] While all of these can be caused by or compounded by poor decision-making, neither automated controls nor computation-based optimization methods can necessarily compensate for or obviate the need for human decisions, particularly when systems are poorly understood or undergoing potentially transformative changes.

Second, investigate the implications of ambiguity for decision behaviors. Imagining scenarios that exceed boundary conditions is not difficult, but assessing their plausibility and the conditions under which they might occur or how they might be managed is extremely challenging. Ambiguity, which is a special form of uncertainty characterized by profound unknowns (for example, either probabilities do not exist or the decision-maker does not know actual probabilities—and does not know which of these conditions applies) may be a pernicious quality of the current decision-making environment.[13] Ambiguity increases cognitive stress and impairs decision-making capacity; it can ultimately induce denial, paralysis, or an unwillingness to make decisions.[14] Much more investigation is warranted to discover its significance with regard to climate and energy transitions, and to develop strategies that can offset or transform ambiguity aversion into innovative problem-solving.

Third, integrate human imagination and technical knowledge to leverage the power of both forms of insight. Substantial progress has been made on developing sophisticated virtual simulation platforms to examine hypothetical scenarios of physical system disruption, but these suffer from several weaknesses as the primary decision-supporting tools for municipalities. Computationally intensive simulations can be inaccessible due to location, cost, and requirements for expert mediation. They can require long and costly development periods that do not align with the pace of municipal decisions, and they may not be flexible enough to apply to hundreds of cities or nimble enough to accommodate changing questions. Lastly, these simulations rely on empirical data, compromising their capacity to deal with the truly unprecedented leaps that imagination can provide.

As an alternative to computationally intensive simulation modeling, participatory scenario assessment is increasingly being deployed to help people imagine energy futures.[15] Scenarios can incorporate a variety of other models and data, illuminating decision options and implications along transition pathways that could otherwise be invisible. Scenario methodologies grounded in integrative narrative with medium fidelity are accessible to a diverse audience, which may make them salient to human-centered, municipal-scale decision-making requirements. However, participatory methods tend to be ad hoc, entrepreneurial ventures with varying degrees of theoretical grounding, typically designed to support engagement on a single issue or decisions within a limited timeframe.[16] They are generally not designed to support or sustain long-term transition planning or to be replicable among many communities engaged with operationalizing resilience or sustainability objectives. This crystallizes the urgency of developing a resilience governance agenda.

Collaborative Scenario Assessment

Collaborative, narrative-based scenario assessment methods can help evaluate hypothetical, plausible events and pathways more holistically by integrating thinking, feeling, and judging into an immersive combination of facts and imagination. Bringing to bear the blended power of quantitative and qualitative insights can generate conversational richness and ideation, particularly when conducted in a way that promotes fluency, flexibility, flow, camaraderie, empathy, compassion, future perspective, and self/group reflection. Narratives are structured, integrative models that can incorporate known, speculative, and analytical inputs from many sources and are easily adjusted. Harnessing the power of these attributes into systematic, replicable best practices, however, requires stronger resilience governance theory and analytical sophistication—the crux of resilience governance R&D.

Resilience scholarship and sustainability scholarship need more transdisciplinary or cross-cutting frameworks, grounded in the recognition that capacity for human decision-making constitutes a point of conceptual interdependence. Innovative resilience governance research and engagement must contend with the conditions under which people make critical decisions about power and transportation systems, and this refers both to growing decentralization and to inherent ambiguity. Robust mechanisms to support community-level decisions in an accessible way do not exist—but that is where all the action is, and investigations with goals of impact should focus on this problem.


[1] “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017,

[2] Richard Heinberg, “100% Renewable Energy is Possible; Here’s How,” Ecowatch, Feb. 28, 2016,; James Momah, Sakis Meliopoulos, and Robert Saint, Centralized and Distributed Generated Power Systems – A Comparison Approach (Tempe, AZ: Power Systems Engineering Research Center, 2012),

[3] Jeff St. John, “Here’s How the US Solar-Storage Market Reaches $1B in 3 Years,” Greentech Media, Jan. 16, 2015,

[4] Mark Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary Cameron, and Bethany Frewa, “Low-Cost Solution to the Grid Reliability Problem with 100% Penetration of Intermittent Wind, Water, and Solar for All Purposes,” Proceedings of the National Academies of Science USA 112, no. 49:15060–15065.

[5] Elisabeth Graffy and Steve Kihm, “Does Disruptive Competition Mean a Death Spiral for Electric Utilities?” Energy Law Journal 35, no. 1 (2015): 1-44,

[6] Momah et al., 2012.

[7] Eric Vugrin, Mark Turnquist, Nathanael Brown, “Optimal Recovery Sequencing for Enhanced Resilience and Service Restoration in Transportation Networks,” International Journal of Critical Infrastructures 10, no. 3/4 (2014): 218-246,

[8] Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky,  “Public Attitudes toward Constructions of New Power Plants,” Public Opinion Quarterly 73, no. 3: 566–577; Lydia Saad, “Politics, Global Warming Concern at Three-Decade High in US,” Gallup, Mar. 14, 2017,

[9] Kyle Field, “Cities Across USA Continue to Commit to 100% Renewable Electricity,” Clean Technica, May 6, 2017,; “#ClimateMayors Letter to President Trump on Roll Back of U.S. Climate Actions,” Climate Mayors, Mar. 28, 2017,

[10] “Open Letter to the International Community and Parties to the Paris Agreement from U.S. State, Local, and Business Leaders,” We Are Still In,

[11]Hiroko Tabuchi  and Henry Fountain, “Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord,” New York Times, June 1, 2017,

[12] David Woods and Matthieu Branlat, “Chapter 10: Basic Patterns in How Adaptive Systems Fail,” in Erik Hollnagel, Ed. Resilience Engineering in Practice, (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010): 1-21.

[13] John Hey and Noemi Pace,  “The Explanatory and Predictive Power of Non Two-Stage-Probability Theories of Decision Making Under Ambiguity,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 49, no. 1 (Aug. 2014): 1-29,

[14]  Helen Pushkarskaya, Michael Smithson, Jane Joseph, Christine Corbly, and Ifat Levy, “Neural Correlates of Decision-Making under Ambiguity and Conflict,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 9, Article 325 (2015): 1-15,; Lei Wang, Jiehui Zheng, Shenwei Huang, and Haoye Sun, “P300 and Decision Making under Risk and Ambiguity,” Computational Intelligence and Neuroscience, Article ID 108417 (2015),; Daniel Ellsberg, “Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 75, no. 4 (Nov. 1961): 643–669,

[15] Clark Miller, Jason O’Leary, Elisabeth Graffy, Ellen Stechel, and Gary Dirks, “Narrative Futures and the Governance of Energy Transitions,” Futures 70 (June 2015): 65-74,

[16] See, e.g., Mark Warren, “Governance-Driven Democratization,” Critical Policy Studies 3, no. 1 (2009): 3–13,

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