Lessening the Impacts of Extreme Weather—How Utilities Should Be Preparing

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Clean-up costs are ballooning and natural disasters are growing more expensive. In 2022 alone there were 18 natural disasters that caused more than $1 billion in damage, up from only three events in 1980. These are taking a bigger bite out of the energy sector’s operating costs and profits, especially as electrification adds more critical loads to the grid.

From droughts to hurricanes, the energy industry faces increasing challenges to protect and maintain the power grid. Solar panels need to be stowed away from debris, unprecedented flooding requires submersible components, and new weather patterns require updated vegetation management strategies and practices.

Strategies to harden the grid and respond to weather incidents need to be more thoughtful and more responsive than ever before. Utilities need their grids to be able to bend and withstand some suboptimal conditions; however, in the situation where the system does break, rapid recovery and restoration remain the primary mission. To strengthen resiliency in the face of increasingly extreme weather, utilities need to keep three items top of mind for preparation and response: worker safety and the ability to dispatch field crews, geographical location, and how to use system data and insights to guide restoration needs.

Worker and Public Safety During Catastrophic Weather

No matter what type of extreme weather utilities face, it is critical that their crews are prepared ahead of time and have the right data and equipment to respond. During outages, every second counts.

Key to ensuring worker safety and responding swiftly is a robust communication network, whether wired, wireless, or a combination of both. Communication networks deliver crucial, real-time information to crews, enhancing their situational awareness. This data can help crews better understand where an outage is, identify any likely hazards, what equipment might be required to support restoration efforts, and more. Meanwhile, dispatchers can help keep crews working safely and efficiently (Figure 1). With a complete view of the network, field service managers can triage the work that needs to be completed, ensure they’re sending crews to the right spots, and identify any new hazards or outages that crews might encounter and need to address.

1. Workers above ground monitor maintenance work for an underground substation. Utilities are using upgraded communication networks to talk to field workers, keeping them safer, and improving the efficiency of projects. Source: Hitachi Energy

Communication networks, paired with automation, can also immediately alert the public to any hazards or outages. It can warn the public to shelter in a specific area or to shelter in place—both would improve their safety and free up the roads and the area so crews can work safely.

Rural or Urban? Different Geographies Require Different Strategies

When responding to and planning for extreme weather, what works for an urban energy network won’t always work for a rural grid and vice versa.

In rural areas, energy networks are typically more spaced out, servicing widely dispersed homes and businesses, which creates longer, more isolated radial feeders. Because of this, there are fewer distribution points available to serve a given area and hence fewer options for redirecting power. Rural utilities also need to monitor, maintain, and repair equipment over vast territories, where other infrastructure such as roads and bridges might also be impacted, particularly by floods and hurricanes.

2. An underground substation is common for urban energy grids. Source: Hitachi Energy

On the other hand, urban communities have more substations closer together. This makes redirecting power within the system easier. However, to help avoid storm impacts, most of the infrastructure is kept underground (Figure 2) to avoid damage from wind and rain, areas that can be impacted by flooding.

While overarching strategies will be different for utilities in rural or urban areas, some solutions are relevant to both.

For instance, digital substations (Figure 3) can increase grid resiliency, as they use fiber optic cables instead of copper wires, which can be subject to corrosion. This is especially pertinent—particularly in areas where exposure to salty or brackish water is a risk—as the frequency and severity of hurricanes and floods rise each year.

3. This rendering of a digital substation highlights the fiber connecting the equipment to the control center. Source: Hitachi Energy

Con Edison is one of the first U.S. utilities Hitachi Energy worked with to switch to digital substations because of extreme weather. Hurricane Sandy caused massive damage in New York City, including widespread power outages, due in part to flooded substations. Following this event, Con Edison underwent a major grid hardening process, replacing a key substation, which supports hundreds of thousands of customers in Manhattan, with digital technology. Digital substations not only promote grid modernization but advance resiliency by incorporating fewer devices and significantly fewer wires. The end result? Repair, replacement, and testing of the substation secondary system is far faster.

In addition to digital substations, many grid-hardening options exist. Utilities can elevate substations, deploy microgrids or battery energy storage systems (BESS) (Figure 4 ) to enable blackstarts or islanding until the storm restoration is fully recovered, or deploy submersible transformers if they can’t be moved out of a commonly flooded area. These tactics will speed recovery and increase overall resilience even during the worst of storms. This gives utilities the ability to keep power flowing while they work to make physical repairs to other areas of the grid.

4. This image of a solar farm in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Canada, also shows how the site incudes a battery energy storage system (BESS), in this photo located at the left of the solar array. BESS can help create a more resilient grid during extreme weather. Source: Hitachi Energy

A strong communication network, as discussed earlier, also plays a critical role here. It can improve situational awareness around grid faults and restoration priorities through field data collected by distribution feeder devices. Solutions such as advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) and outage management systems can use such data to optimize personnel utilization, dispatching field crews to the most critical restoration points.

Communication networks can also help protect physical equipment. An Australian solar farm, for instance, deployed a wireless mesh communication network (Figure 5) to easily integrate more anemometers into its IoT network. By having access to more connected anemometers, it can ingest more wind data and more accurately inform its ‘stow’ strategy, an extreme weather defensive measure that locks solar panels at certain positions, based on wind speed and direction. By choosing a wireless approach, the solar farm minimized potential operational disruption, reduced the schedule, and decreased costs of deploying this resilience measure.

5. Photo of an outdoor wireless mesh installation, which plays a critical role in responding during extreme weather. Source: Hitachi Energy

Leverage Data for Before, During and After Storms

Regardless of location, utilities need accurate, real-time data on the status of their equipment, workers (particularly field service crews) and local conditions in the impacted area before, during and after storms to improve resiliency.

Before a storm hits, it’s all about being prepared.

A condition-based asset performance management approach can ensure all equipment is in the best shape possible before a storm hits. Without having to physically inspect equipment, utilities can identify what, if any, repairs or adjustments are needed, thanks to an Internet of Things network sending real-time data back to the utility.

Similarly, a data-driven vegetation management strategy is critical to keep distribution circuits clear in preparation for extreme weather. About 25% to 30% of outages are caused by vegetation. Because of climate change, the growth patterns for vegetation have also changed, and time-based vegetation management is no longer as impactful as it once was. New satellite and AI-powered vegetation management solutions (Figure 6), which companies such as the Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities are now using, can provide real-time insights into where assets are most at risk due to vegetation. It can also help optimize where crews are dispatched, which is critical when resources are increasingly tight in today’s challenging labor market.

6. This graphic is from the Hitachi Vegetation Manager; the systems uses artificial intelligence to identify and classify tree canopies to help optimize where to deploy vegetation management resources. Source: Hitachi Energy

With the right data, machine learning (ML) can help pinpoint where and when storms will hit and give utilities time to isolate the network; preposition equipment, if needed; and move crew to areas that are likely to be impacted.

During a storm, real-time information is key.

Once a storm hits, artificial intelligence and ML are critical. Alarm fatigue is an ongoing challenge, but technology can help operators, dispatchers, and crews prioritize what’s most important and provide recommendations on the best way to restore power. Real-time, accurate data is a necessary ingredient for this process.

Additionally, real-time imagery from satellites analyzed by ML systems can identify downed power lines, trees, and more, helping crews navigate safely. Automation features, as mentioned before, can send alerts to the public to help them stay safe and avoid potentially dangerous areas.

DEMCO is an electric co-op in Louisiana that embraced data to increase its storm response significantly. It developed an advanced outage management solution that pinpoints an outage on an interactive map while working to diagnose the issue and create a plan for resolution. DEMCO used the solution during winter storm Uri in 2021, where ice coated its power lines. Five of the utility’s parishes saw 499 separate outages, impacting 42,000 members. That same summer, Hurricane Ida toppled more than 4,000 transmission and distribution poles, causing 90% of DEMCO’s members to lose power during or after the storm. Through the use of its advanced outage management solution and data-driven approach, DEMCO was able to restore power much more quickly than during previous storms.

After a storm, review and update the response.

Old adages like “lightning never strikes the same place twice” no longer hold up in the face of climate change—we’re seeing that 100-year storms are now happening every few years. Following an extreme weather event, utilities need to evaluate their response and equipment to create an even more resilient preparedness and response plan for the future.

Machine learning can be especially helpful. It can review data from protective equipment, such as surge arrestors and spark prevention units, satellite imagery and other sources, to help identify what happened during the storm and where faults occurred. This helps utilities evaluate what did and didn’t go well with their response plan, and how they can better prepare for the next storm. Utilities should also use the data to create a visual catalog of storm impacts to better anticipate future ones.

Focus on what you can control.

In a world where the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events continue to rise, the importance of weather preparedness for businesses cannot be overstated. To ensure resiliency when extreme weather hits, utilities must prioritize worker safety, the ability to dispatch field crews based on proximity to impacted assets, and how to use system data and insights to guide restoration.

From vegetation management and implementing digital substations to elevating and hardening grid components and enabling sections of the grid to operate semi-independently (microgrids/BESS), utilities can speed recovery and increase overall resilience.

While utilities cannot control the weather, they can control their preparedness and response. By embracing an all-encompassing approach to weather resilience, utilities can not only weather the storms but emerge stronger, fostering a safer and more resilient grid for the future.

Steven Kunsman is director of Product Management Grid Automation North America for Hitachi Energy. Bryan Friehauf is senior vice president of Enterprise Software Solutions at Hitachi Energy. 

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