In February 2021, more than 4 million people lost power for days on end throughout Texas. The now-infamous outage resulted from extreme winter weather the state’s power grid wasn’t prepared to handle.
This incident is spurring power companies nationwide to get proactive about preparing for increasingly severe winters. What steps are they taking to safeguard their equipment infrastructure against storms?
Prioritize Durability for the Extreme
The first step power companies take to safeguard against winter weather is updating infrastructure for improved durability. Seasonal storms are getting more extreme every year, meaning many areas are experiencing temperatures and conditions they never did before.
Research shows winter storm-related blackouts are getting more frequent, expensive, and severe as climate change worsens and grid infrastructure ages. As a result, updating infrastructure for better resilience is necessary.
Improve Sealing and Insulation
Sealing and insulation are critical when it comes to winter-proofing electrical infrastructure. Leaks and drafts allow excess moisture to enter equipment and systems. For instance, dampness inside an instrument with poor seals could freeze over, causing it to fail during extreme weather.
Sealing is essential for outdoor equipment like transformers. Rain, snow, and other weather conditions increase the risk of excess internal moisture. However, it also faces the unique challenge of wildlife behaviors.
Animals, especially birds and squirrels, may take advantage of poorly sealed transformers and equipment by sheltering inside. They can make nests that block up or damage equipment. This behavior poses a risk to wildlife, as well. Energy companies across the U.S. report thousands of outages due to squirrels and birds each year. High-quality sealing is crucial for preventing these occurrences.
Power companies also prioritize installing high-durability insulation on essential equipment, from pipes to outdoor generator components. This can ward off wind and keep moisture away from electrical equipment while retaining the heat naturally generated by electricity.
Strengthen Power Lines
Winter is a dangerous season for power lines. Snow and wind break tree branches frequently and wind can create ice buildup. In extreme cases, high winds may snap cables or cause electrical poles to fall.
Power companies are taking steps to prevent weather-related damage. For instance, stronger, sturdier electrical poles are replacing those that are aging or worn out. Thicker, more resilient cables that are less prone to freezing are also being installed.
Replace Aging Equipment and Infrastructure
Part of improving grid durability is replacing aging equipment and infrastructure. This may be an expensive investment, but it has been necessary for some time. At least 70% of the U.S. electrical grid is over 25 years old and is nearing retirement. Excessive strain from extreme weather will only expedite age-related wear and tear.
Defending against extreme winter weather requires addressing this issue. After the historic Texas power crisis in February 2021, many companies are no longer waiting to replace aging equipment. The mass blackout was the result, in part, of outdated infrastructure unable to meet the demands of damaging conditions.
Power companies must be careful not to wait to replace outdated equipment. Supply chain shortages are increasing the lead times on essential items like transformers, at times, to well over a year. This means there is a longer wait for manufacturers to deliver their orders.
Power companies must begin gearing up for winter early in the year. In spring, officials should evaluate all equipment for signs of wear and tear. They should pinpoint what needs to be replaced before next winter and immediately place orders with vendors and manufacturers.
Additionally, part of grid modernization is preparing for modern threats to electrical infrastructure, including cybersecurity. Winter storms are a particularly vulnerable time for power companies, which may make them appealing targets to hackers right when customers most need electricity.
More-modern grid infrastructure is resilient to cyberattacks. However, hackers have been targeting the utility industry more frequently in recent years, with incidents like the Colonial Pipeline attack making headlines. Power companies must improve their cybersecurity readiness with advanced antivirus programs, identity and access control, and extensive security training. These steps can protect electrical grids from being targeted and going offline in vulnerable winter storms.
Expand Indoor Infrastructure
Electricity is produced worldwide, including in extremely cold places like Antarctica. Power companies adapting to changing temperatures can use strategies from these locations to prepare for winter weather. One technique is moving equipment indoors.
Expanding shelter at power generation plants is expensive but may be necessary in some locations. It allows central heating to keep an entire space warm and prevents wind, rain, sleet, and snow from coming in contact with equipment.
Of course, some electrical equipment is too large to go inside a building. However, shelter is viable for many structures. Power companies should build these places as early as possible.
This process should include analyzing the heat profile of the power station before and after a shelter is constructed. Cold areas and drafts can develop indoors. Understanding where these areas are is vital for ensuring the most effective layout of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment.
Strengthen Collaboration and Planning
One of the biggest issues during the Texas power crisis was that its power grid is isolated from the East or West coast grids. This prevented Texas utilities from receiving excess electricity from states safe from the winter storm. The energy was there, but it couldn’t get to where it was needed most.
Power companies must work together to prevent situations like this. Collaboration is critical when preparing for extreme winter weather. It must include all types of utilities and electricity generation solutions. A modern grid requires the flexibility of diverse generation sources.
For instance, industry experts have suggested using microgrids and renewables to supplement conventional power generation infrastructure. Open mindsets and proactive collaboration are vital for innovative strategies like this to work.
Additionally, collaboration is necessary for developing effective emergency response and power management plans. For example, manual load shedding requires coordination and careful planning to minimize damage and risks. Power companies should work with local leaders and communities to understand needs and identify high-risk buildings and areas.
Protecting the Grid from Winter Weather Challenges
Power companies are the electrical grid’s first line of defense against increasingly severe winter weather. Proactive steps like replacing old equipment and improving winterizing efforts are strengthening infrastructure against the cold. Enhanced collaboration between utilities and local communities promotes innovation and more effective extreme weather response planning.
—Emily Newton is an industrial journalist who regularly covers stories for the utilities and energy sectors. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.