Energy Insiders Say Tech, Collaboration Key to Utility Storm Prep

Hurricane season is underway and summer heat already has arrived in many areas, which again puts the spotlight on utilities, the power grid, and disaster response plans after a series of major weather events and wildfires caused outages and other disruptions in the U.S. and Caribbean in recent years.

“We’re seeing these events occur, and regardless of where you stand on climate change, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we as utility deal with this?’ ” said Darrel Anderson, president and CEO of IDACORP Inc., which includes Idaho Power as a subsidiary, as he kicked off a panel discussion titled “Taming Nature’s Fury: Electric Companies and Extreme Weather Events,” on June 11 at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual convention in Philadelphia. The panel included Margaret Peloso, a partner with Vinson & Elkins who deals with environmental and natural resource issues; Ronald Brise, a former commissioner with the Florida Public Service Commission; and Barnie Gyant, a deputy regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

Anderson, discussing the wildfires that have scorched much of California and other Western states in recent years, noted the difficulties for utilities that operate in those areas.

“In Idaho, two-thirds of our [area] is public lands. In California, almost 60% of the forest land is publicly owned,” Anderson said, pointing out that means any forest management efforts have to be coordinated with the federal government, including the USFS and other agencies. Anderson discussed how Idaho in December 2018 finalized a forest management agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“With our agreement we have a chance to get in there, manage our forests, and mitigate [wildfire] risk,” Anderson said.

The panelists agreed that, as Gyant said, “Technology has to be at the forefront” of efforts to prepare for and respond to severe weather events.

That sentiment was echoed by Vera Silva, the chief technology officer for GE Grid Solutions business at GE Renewable Energy, in an interview with POWER on June 12.

“Not only are extreme weather events more frequent, we have observed that storms in winter and the risks from heat in summer are becoming more frequent,” Silva said. “There’s more climate variability, and there’s an awareness that we need to start looking at climate change impacts, and how that’s connected to energy.

“Think about weather temperature and demand,” she said. “You need to be planning your system for a worst-case scenario, or a 1-in-100-year heat wave, when looking at energy security assessments over the next 30, 40, or 50 years.”

She said distributed generation should help with storm response. “Now that we have storage and new generation on the distributed side,” she said, “there’s an opportunity to create resilience and bring the system online in a different way.”

A Number of Weather Threats

Wildfires, which led to the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) earlier this year, are just one threat to the power grid. Hurricanes and other major storms have battered many areas of the U.S. and the Caribbean, and Peloso said “while we might not see more hurricanes,” in terms of the number of severe events, “when they do occur they will be stronger and more destructive.”

Peloso said on average the number of annual weather events considered “extreme” in the U.S.—those resulting in damage of more than $1 billion—have jumped to more than 12 a year since 2014, more than double the average rate in the prior 25 years.

She said a question for utilities should be: “How are you going to engage your local community to lessen your risk?”

“Regulators need a whole lot more education on extreme weather events,” said Brise, the former regulator. “It’s important to walk regulators through the finances of what’s required for storm recovery. There needs to be a better understanding of the value of longer-term planning. We need to truly address what the challenges are, and how we address those challenges.”

Costs of Restoration

Brise said Florida utilities have tried to answer that question for years, particularly after a series of hurricanes battered the state in 2004-2005. “In Florida, utilities ask ‘How do you cover those costs?’ of power restoration,” Brise said, saying utilities may look to raise rates to cover those costs, but must do it “without causing customer shock. [State] regulators have to try to balance those interests,” of both the utility and ratepayers. Utilities have to “help policymakers understand they need to create some flexibility in how they address these issues.”

Gyant, who is based in California, cited what he called “shared stewardship” of public lands between the federal government and local utilities. Gyant said the USFS manages 60% of the forest land in California, which accounts for about 20% of the state’s land base.

“We have to have plans for how we work with utilities,” Gyant said, noting that includes more than just power companies. “We’re working with a lot of groups, and electric companies should be a part of that.”

Gyant said the USFS is working Denver Water on a plan to manage forests in that group’s watersheds in Colorado, a model that can work elsewhere. “We can be strategic with where we place our treatments [for wildfire mitigation],” he said. “We’ve been reactive to these events, and we need to be proactive, bring all the entities impacted together to talk about this. That’s shared stewardship. We talk about the cost of an event after it happens. We often don’t talk about the cost of inaction, but we’ve got to talk about it.”

“There has to be greater engagement with local governments in preparation for events,” said Brise. “In Florida, there are cities who will say ‘don’t cut my trees,’ before a storm, but we’ve seen the difference that can make,” citing examples after the back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Brise said power outages lasted an average of just more than two days in areas where vegetation mitigation efforts were made, but lasted more than five days in areas that did not take mitigation steps.

“We need to be sensitizing the public to the real challenge of responding to these storms,” Brise said. “When we do that, the public is better prepared, and they better understand the risk. And when they see there’s a risk, they know there’s a cost associated with that risk.”

Peloso agreed. “Utilities need to engage and educate [customers],” she said. “Ask people,

‘Where is that capital [to repair power infrastructure and restore power] going to come from?’ People are really, really terrible at assessing risk.” She proposed what she called “a controversial idea,” of communities perhaps not allowing development in disaster-prone areas, while noting that development in important to the local tax base and can promote economic growth.

Technology Front and Center

All the panelists agreed that “technology has to be at the forefront” of how utilities deal with the risk of, and response to, several weather events.

“Technology can help us make forward-looking projections of risk,” Peloso said.

Silva talked about “strategic energy decisions,” such as system redundance, and even water treatments. “Are we able to have the water at a temperature to keep our plants running,” she said, noting a recent heat wave in France that led to issues as there was not enough cool water to cool the country’s nuclear reactors, which provide most of the country’s power.

“Whenver you have storms, like those that caused blackouts in Australia a few years ago [2016], you need to look at redundant systems,” Silva said. “[Utilities] didn’t consider there would be the loss of so many power lines in the grid system at the same time.”

“Utilities should be looking at what they can do to [restore] the service on the line as quickly as possible,” she said. “And utilities are basically preparing for that, doing what they can to take those [worst-case scenarios] into account. They’re looking at the security of the power supply, the resilience and reliability, and the quality of the supply.”

Silva said artificial intelligence can play an important role in reducing the risk of severe weather events to the grid moving forward. “Look at a self-healing autonomous grid, where AI can automatically change the grid to ensure supply whenever you have a problem on the grid,” she said. “This was difficult to do because there was no AI. Now there are new ways of reconfiguring the grid. You can create an island, like a microgrid, with all the pockets of distributed generation, and maybe use that to bring those pockets online. Many utilities are interested in this technology, because it can be used to bring parts of the grid online faster.”

Silva said data analytics also is helping with response. She cited Florida Power & Light (FPL) as an example, noting FPL’s preparation for hurricane season includes “more machine-learning, more data analytics, and they use that to improve their response to a storm. Utilities need to tap in to the potential of AI and machine-learning, with the value to react faster and more efficiently to outage events.”

Gyant as part of the EEI discussion reiterated that utilities must be proactive in their risk mitigation efforts. “It’s about how do we work together to provide the services to protect the landscape,” he said, noting it’s important to protect both the public and the utility’s assets.

—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).