With record high temperatures and wildfires gripping the West, utilities have asked residents to cut down on power usage to reduce the strain on overburdened systems. As we’ve seen following countless crises, the U.S. energy grid is being pushed to its limits.
Fortunately, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill is on the horizon, and with it, a significant opportunity to safeguard critical public assets across the U.S. While the country has countless infrastructure needs, few are as critical as those focused on improving the nation’s resilience in the face of impending climate change. This includes making the grid safer, less vulnerable to catastrophic climate events, and less likely to cause damage to constituents and the economy. Last year’s record-breaking fire season put this into stark perspective, with the state of California alone incurring damages between $130 billion and $150 billion.
The funds earmarked for resiliency efforts within the infrastructure bill can reduce the likelihood of these devasting events as well as the magnitude of their impact. However, the true challenge will be prioritizing the budget to address a vast number of critical needs. The creation of a comprehensive “Resiliency Index” will be key in the effort to strengthen the energy grid, allowing operators to focus on the tools and technologies that will make an immediate difference and establish a clear plan of action that is both flexible and trackable.
Wildfires present an especially difficult challenge for power grid operators and stakeholders. With assets spread over vast territories—all exposed to high winds, flying debris, animals, and more—the task of maintaining and protecting the equipment that generates, transmits, and distributes electricity becomes a gargantuan one. However, with the proper situational awareness, the chances of ignition can be greatly diminished.
A Resiliency Index would provide this much-needed context, enabling utilities to prioritize critical wildfire prevention strategies, including:
- Selective undergrounding of electrical infrastructure to reduce exposure to damage from downed trees and other hazards.
- Satellite observation, high-definition cameras, and drone-enabled patrols to identify risk factors.
- Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology using laser-generated light pulses to generate 3D images of power lines in relation to surrounding terrain, identifying clearance between wires and vegetation, pole fatigue or damage, and sagging power lines.
- Electrical infrastructure hardening, microgrids, and storage to distribute critical electrical loads and isolate high-fire-risk areas.
- Vegetation management to reduce flammability, especially near critical components.
- The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to process the massive amounts of data from new situational awareness technologies. This information allows utilities to isolate damaged sections of a power system to protect surrounding service areas and the larger grid, while allowing faster restoration of power.
Wildfires present a risk to us all. Let us make the most of the recent legislative success and institute measures prioritized to make the greatest impact as soon as possible. With climate change threatening every aspect of our lives, we must ensure that the allocation of these funds is prioritized by a comprehensive Resiliency Index that accounts for human safety, economic impact, and infrastructure function.
—Gregg Edeson is the utility reliability and resiliency lead at PA Consulting and the ReliabilityOne program director. Mike Sullivan is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting.