Finding and building resilience in the power grid

Finding and building resilience in the power grid
Jan 25, 2021
With the 2020 hurricane season behind us, now is the ideal time for utilities to invest in their critical infrastructure. Martin (Marty) Altman offers some guidance.  

Utilities often struggle to restore and strengthen the power grid after a disaster and before the next one hits. It’s not only loss of power that creates hardships; it’s the subsequent loss to critical infrastructure and community lifelines. The impacts from disasters and extreme weather events are felt by everyone, from individuals to communities, small businesses to institutions.

Following 2020’s historic hurricanes and catastrophic wildfires, we talked with ICF’s Martin (Marty) Altman about how utility companies are finding and building resilience in the power grid.

You’ve said that utility companies hold the key to successful recovery in communities after a disaster. In what way?

We know that utilities save lives by minimizing the time to restore power. Without building resilience into the energy grid to withstand extreme weather events and disasters, they place themselves and the communities they serve at risk—both in lives lost and money wasted. In some cases, disasters have pushed utility providers into bankruptcy. That creates a negative economic impact that ripples through communities for years and affects banks, medical facilities, educational institutions, and many others.

Where does climate change come into play?

Extreme weather events will likely increase in frequency and intensity. Climate change could hit utility companies with substantial costs above and beyond the damage from a single event. In some jurisdictions, utilities can be held responsible for lost economic output caused by power outages, aging equipment, or failure to perform adequate vegetation management work. These assessments are ultimately borne by consumers in the form of higher rates. A decade after Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast customers were still footing the bill for storm-related damages.

How is ICF helping utility companies in the U.S.?

Following power losses caused by Tropical Storm Isaias, we’re working with utilities to better understand the impact of critical infrastructure hardening activities on the resilience of the grid in the northeast. Millions of customers lost power after Isaias. The lights went out and they stayed out for a long time. Customers were understandably upset. As a result, state legislatures are closely examining utility performance and response times.

After Isaias, access roads were blocked by debris, making it difficult, if not impossible, for repair crews to reach damaged assets and quickly restore power. Communicating that kind of information directly and openly with customers during and after an outage could make a difference. We’re developing outreach programs to educate communities about how power companies respond during an extreme weather event, as well as before and after, and where that response could be limited by various factors.

We’re also creating programs to educate property owners about the need for regular vegetation maintenance, so communities can be better prepared for future events. Trees and power poles and lines are often located close together on frontage roads, running along private property, jockeying for space. Power companies can trim and remove trees on private property that meet certain criteria. Property owners also have responsibility for maintenance. Vegetation management crews sometimes face community backlash when they’re out working, but a single tree could cause a lengthy outage during a storm.

We’re helping utility companies assess and update their emergency response plans and mitigation programs. Finally, although it has traditionally been costly to implement, we’re creating models to determine whether placing power lines underground might be a long-term solution to the chronic problem of power outages—and finding cost-effective ways to do that.

We’ve learned a lot about resilience and hardening critical infrastructure over the years and utility companies are putting that knowledge into action with real results. After Superstorm Sandy in late 2012, 90% of the critical infrastructure was wiped out. We’re working with Public Service Enterprise Group, Long Island Power Authority (PSEG Long Island) to storm-harden 1,025 miles of overhead main line. PSEG also installed smart switches, as part of its mitigation efforts, that shut down the power in vulnerable parts of the system to prevent the entire grid from going down. They strengthened power poles and placed others underground. The result is a reduction in power outages and physical damages.

What’s happening with utility companies in the Pacific Northwest, after another year of devastating wildfires?

From January to early November 2020, wildfires scorched close to 9 million acres in the U.S. The year before, during the same time frame, 4.6 million acres burned. The damage almost doubled in a year, and that’s not counting the loss of lives and property. We still don’t know the overall cost to critical infrastructure from recent wildfires. For comparison, a 2017 study estimated that it could cost $5 trillion to replace the country’s entire electric grid.

We’re throwing every tool we have at the problem—technology, drones and GIS, vegetation management, and energy experts—to create strategies that are not just Band-Aids. 

The Pacific Northwest region was hit hard. We’re sending out experienced staff and deploying technology assets to assess the damage; that data will then go into modeling programs. We’ll look at before and after photos and burn patterns and develop solutions to build post-fire resilience.

We can also build models that will predict fire direction based on wind patterns and other data. This is exciting stuff. Ultimately, utility companies need to know immediately what’s in the path of a fire when it starts.

During the rainy season, utility companies worry about threats to recently fire-damaged assets. If you simply replace damaged poles, for example, landslides or mudflows might take them out again. Solutions could include putting in bigger and stronger poles, wrapping them in fire retardant, and adding bracing and guidewires.

You completed a cost-benefit analysis that showed mitigation strategies can save power companies money down the road.

Our analysis showed that for every $1 spent on mitigation activities, PSEG Long Island saved $8 or $9 in recovery costs from future events and disasters. It’s important to note that the savings from adopting and implementing mitigation strategies could be even higher, depending on the strategy. The National Institute of Building Sciences 2019 report, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves, stated it succinctly in the summary: “Based on the mitigation measures the project team examined for the Interim Report, mitigation remains a solid investment.”

Do you think those analyses will increase mitigation spending in the industry?

Yes. Because if you show utility companies what they’re paying today versus what they could be paying in the future, there’s no question that finding and building resilience in critical infrastructure makes sense.

What concrete steps can utility companies take before the next wildfire and hurricane season?

We’ve talked about most of them. Take a hard look at the assets needed to operate the power grid and complete a risk analysis. Ask important questions: what’s the status of vegetation management efforts in the service area? Are power lines located far enough from potential fire lines? What roles do communities play? Put together mitigation plans and strengthen the overall system; prepare data analytics and modeling; develop strategies for improving overall communications, including outreach to communities; complete damage assessments; and, finally, use funding sources, like FEMA’s BRIC program, to shore up critical infrastructure.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. Building resilience into critical infrastructure must start before the next disaster happens, so now is the perfect time.

To learn more about how we’re partnering with leading utilities to build climate resilience, view our webinar with Con Edison.

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