Five Years after Sandy Quenched Lights, Zohaeb Atiq '18 Helps Cities Brace for the Next Megastorm

Written by: Tracey Regan,
Lower Manhattan goes dark after Hurricane Sandy takes down the power grid.

Zohaeb Atiq ’18 was a high school junior when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the region, “affecting the lives of pretty much everyone I knew.” His mother was out of the country, urgently trying to call; his father was taking care of the family, while straining to keep his Jersey City store running without electricity. Their home in Nutley had no power for several days.

He felt certain it wasn’t a one-off disaster, and wondered how prepared the region would be the next time.

“I remember thinking about what would happen if another Hurricane Sandy came. Would we just keep rebuilding everything and pour billions of dollars into restoring things back to the way they were? Or invest in the future? I believed there was a high chance that similar strong storms would pass over our state in the future,” he recounts, calling Tropical Storm Irene the year before ‘a preview.’ “Since then, that belief has only strengthened.”

Five years later, Atiq, a mechanical engineering major, is betting on a future-focused plan. He’s working with architects and planners at NJIT’s Center for Building Knowledge and Center for Resilient Design on an online training program for New Jersey cities and towns looking to create small, localized power grids that would keep critical facilities up and running should another megastorm take out substations and lines connected to the regional grid.

Known as microgrids, these networks link buildings such as hospitals, government offices and fire departments to local power sources – from combined heat-and-power turbines that produce electricity and steam, to stored power, to alternative energy – thus enabling them to function autonomously in emergencies and at times of peak power usage.

With its own source of local energy generation, a city can island itself off from the grid,” he says, calling the metro region post-Sandy, “hot for microgrids.”

New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities is offering planning grants to municipalities to create microgrid feasibility studies; 13 awards have been made thus far. Atiq and his supervisors at CBK, working with the New Brunswick-based planning firm, Greener by Design, are developing an online training program that will walk them through this process. Their online “academy” would educate municipal staff and chief decision makers on writing a detailed study proposal and procuring professional services to assist in the planning process.  

“We’re making it interactive, with surveys and quizzes, so that municipal officials won’t be overwhelmed,” Atiq notes of the project, which is funded by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

“Cost is a key issue, and one of the things the online training helps establish is whether a microgrid makes sense financially for a town,” he says, adding. “But even if one isn’t suitable, our goal is to help municipalities identify their critical facilities.”

Senior Zohaeb Atiq

Terra Meierdierck, CBK’s manager for outreach and development, observed, “Zohaeb brings a fresh set of eyes to everything we’re doing, a good sense of the most effective way to communicate with audiences online and creative concepts.”

The former business manager for The Vector campus newspaper, the public relations coordinator for the campus chapter of the American Society of mechanical Engineers and the current president of the Student Activities Council, he has amassed diverse skills in his time on campus. “Not a lot of engineers have Photoshop experience!” he noted.

The U.S. Department of Energy calls microgrids “a key component of the Smart Grid for improving power reliability and quality, increasing system energy efficiency, and providing the possibility of grid-independence to individual end-user sites.” Only nine municipalities in the state currently operate their own electrical utility.  

“When I started here, I didn’t really know what microgrids were, how important they are or that we were already building one in New Jersey – in Hoboken,” he says. “Our electrical infrastructure is getting old and inefficient and advances in technology that make it more feasible to generate power locally, and more resiliently, are going to be important. Basically, it takes a storm – and now a series of them – to point out how frail the system is.”

Atiq, who began at NJIT with the idea of becoming an automotive engineer, is now considering a new career path: working for a utility or an engineering firm designing a grid. With a longstanding interest in business, he’ll likely pursue an MBA after a few years on the job.

“You can design amazing things, but if they don’t make sense financially, they’re not feasible,” he says. “With microgrids, one of the first objectives is to examine the cost and so you need to grasp the business side and perform a cost-benefit analysis. I look forward to combining both of my interests to assess the payback for municipalities.”

NJIT students responded to Sandy in a variety of ways. For a closer look at their efforts click here.