INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How municipalities and utilities can prepare for natural disasters

Natural disasters and extreme weather events are mounting at a feverish pace. While once infrequent and sporadic,  they are now occurring at an eerily regular pace. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, “2019 is the fifth consecutive year (2015-2019) in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the United States.”

Now it’s more urgent than ever for governments, regulators and utilities to work in lockstep to mitigate damages from natural disasters and the negative effects the world’s changing climate and be better prepared to get vital services back online to support recovery efforts.

With the severity and frequency of storms, floods and fires increasing precipitously, a real-time communications network has become a critical need. Utilities are now in the early stages of developing systems for near-real-time alerts and warnings for their customers. For example, Consolidated Edison began deploying battery-powered natural gas detectors on its smart meter network in 2018 to detect leaks and mobilize emergency crews.

Florida Power & Light installed almost 4,000 automated feeder switches and 20,000 line sensors ahead of Hurricane Irma, which hit land in September 2017. Other utilities are innovating with moisture detection sensors, allowing them to remotely sense areas where trees or other vegetation are becoming dry and brittle, creating a higher risk of fires.

Another strategic move by utilities is to sectionalize their grids to reduce the scope of power outages. Dividing the grid into sections by using switches or reclosers to reroute the flow of power can also give utilities more flexibility to limit the scope of intentional power outages, shutting power down in only the most endangered grids, while leaving the lights on where risks are low. Commonwealth Edison in Illinois sectionalized its entire grid to the point that even a significant windstorm could impact as few as 500 to 700 customers.

“The reinforcements we’ve made to the system, and the new smart technology, limited the scope of outages to the smallest number of customers. The system is now automatically sectionalized. When there is a problem in the system, it isolates the problem and prevents the outage from spreading,” ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez said.

What can regulators do?

As extreme weather events take an increasing toll, the most critical and urgent challenge is for governments, regulators and utilities to gain a shared understanding of the longer-term impacts of this trend. That forces the question: Can the models we’ve used historically guide us over the next decade?

Predictive modeling will become an even more critical element in the coming decade than it was in the last. That means taking stock of the current environment and contrasting it with the environment in which we expect public utilities to operate in the next 50 to 100 years. Regulators and municipalities must understand that to adapt to a changing environment they must alter how they design regulatory strategies, fund new programs and plan for the inevitability of climate change.

Now, governments, regulators and utilities must act in concert to tackle the increase in the frequency, severity and costs of natural disasters. There’s no denying that immediate, sustained action to combat the inevitable must become priority one.

About the Author

Matt Smith is senior director of grid management at Itron.

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