Storms, wildfires, and droughts are climate disasters that we continue to see making headlines and disrupting our daily lives. Major destructive weather patterns in 2021 alone have caused $20 billion-level disasters, totaling $152 billion and resulting in more than 700 fatalities. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that outages can cost the U.S. economy $150 billion annually.
Utilities may have rapid response plans in place, but as the severity of natural disasters increases, it’s crucial to implement long-term planning and new climate technologies to be as prepared as possible.
Where Rapid Response Is Not Optimal Response
Many utilities focus on quickly finding a solution in these timely situations, which is understandable considering significant outages due to weather-related events have increased 64% over the last 10 years, and no one wants to be without power.
The issue is that rapid response has inherent inefficiencies, which are magnified by the sheer volume of resources needed to address a natural disaster, as well as supply and demand issues.
Utilities tend to spend a lot of money upfront for resources to respond to a storm or wildfire, but the allotment will rarely be exactly what the event requires. Unfortunately, procuring necessary supplies at the last minute translates into high cost and low efficiency.
Given the magnitude of costs to respond to these events, utilities should ask several important questions:
- Is there a more efficient process to optimize spending?
- Are logistics put in place to deliver the resources where and when needed?
- Are supply needs optimized to prevent higher spending for last-minute supply?
Safety is another concern as many assessments after a storm are done manually. This can result in utilities waiting on information that may be older and/or less accurate when they are addressing restoration. Accurate, real-time information on downed poles and power lines must be collected and shared with the public and first responders quickly, to prevent severe injury or death from contact.
Every utility wants to get the power back on as soon as possible for their customers. But before the work begins, all logistics need to be in place for several tasks, including sourcing of materials, safety orientations, work packages, traffic control, and communicating what needs to be done and where.
Long-term planning can inform these logistics ahead of time and make rapid response more efficient and effective.
Long-Term Planning = Opportunity
Storm mitigation and restoration can be difficult, but utilities will decrease prolonged hours if they understand what moving parts are under their control and the data they need to look for to make better decisions. They will be able to get their communities back up and running faster if they have the right resources.
Today, the top climate preparedness barriers that most utilities face are siloed information and limited resources. For example, if you look at vegetation inside and outside of the rights of way (ROW), you’ll see information gathered from several sources, including ground surveyors, aerial surveyors, and crews trimming along the transmission and distribution lines.
Most of this information is subjective and siloed. Typically, it is collected manually from separate origins, and it needs to be reviewed thoroughly. Pulling this data together and analyzing it is a time-consuming process that encompasses myriad meetings to discuss insights and align on a detailed strategy. Then decisions must be made, such as determining which areas have the most urgent need for trimming.
In fact, this can represent months of work and be easily sidelined by a damaging weather event, leaving utilities to reevaluate and reassess new data, losing more valuable time. The opportunity here lies in assuring the utility is working with near-real-time information about the grid that is centralized in one location.
Making Time Ahead of Time
All utilities learn from prior events, and each situation has a unique set of circumstances or nuances. The key takeaways may take years to develop, however. For example, recognizing systems with circuits that may be in the way of wildfires is only step one. Planning, buying, and installing equipment to automate the systems can run into years of work.
Taking a forward-thinking approach and examining things from a logistical standpoint is crucial. Let’s take vegetation management around T&D lines, for example.
● How are climate factors coming into play?
● Where is drought projected?
● Are there forecasts of intense storms?
As data is gathered, planning to mitigate disruption is possible. Drought predictions may indicate special attention to vegetation around lines in the area to avoid sparking a wildfire. Storm predictions may prompt extra clearance around facilities.
Pitfalls of the Manual Process
Long-term planning for utilities may mean years’ worth of grid hardening initiatives such as undergrounding T&D lines for better storm resiliency, automation to allow circuit switching as a workaround for wildfires, and basic vegetation management.
Quite often, this planning is done manually, with field inspectors identifying trim or improvement areas and their urgency. Options like LiDAR on drones or aircraft can collect data faster from above, but at a high cost. In both areas, the overall time spectrum of collecting, processing, and getting data back to the utility is vastly long.
The difficulty here is that anytime you have a human collection of data, you introduce human error. Satellite technology can alleviate these issues with more accuracy and repeatability of data collection. And it is fast, with AI analysis of collected imagery processed and recommendations returned to the utility in a timely manner — usually days.
Satellites and AI Contribute to Plans in Near Real Time
When looking at a utility’s climate disaster preparedness, there are two important questions to consider:
● How fast can I get the most accurate info?
● How quickly can I make a decision about staging the resources I need for recovery?
The more data a utility can rely upon the better it will be at planning restoration. Determining the resources needed and getting those resources where they need to be are important. The better the information, the closer resources can be positioned to problematic areas, and the faster power can be restored.
This is where climate technology — like satellites and AI — has a lot to offer.
Satellites provide inexpensive, rapid monitoring that keeps utilities informed of whether long-term plans are going to be effective.
● Are areas originally deemed stable now showing signs of overgrowth that were not anticipated?
● Is a new storm or wildfire on the horizon that would require more not-yet-scheduled clearance around facilities or require circuit switching to minimize customer outages?
Satellites will point out these issues in near real-time, providing an indication of changing environmental factors.
Then, AI ingests not only current satellite-imagery updates but also historical data from past weather events and ground-level insights. By collecting and analyzing information on a single platform, AI sidesteps the need to navigate the maze of conference calls and emails to share data and inform decisions.
AI pulls together all info sources — weather, data, the current status of the grid, and so forth. The technology analyzes it and makes the information and insights easily accessible to decision-makers, all on one platform. This speeds up the decision-making process and provides greater agility for the utility.
AI evaluates that information with the changing dynamics of weather patterns or environmental factors. Satellites and AI also generate insights that whittle the decision-making process down to a fraction of the traditional time. The process is agile and easy, and it quickly refactors for changing external factors.
In the long term, having technology in place to continually assess and analyze your climate disaster situation will prove invaluable, supporting:
● Faster event assessment.
● Prediction of how infrastructure and service may be affected by the event (allowing for reassessment and redeployment, as necessary).
● Evaluation of response staging sites for useability.
No one controls the climate, but climate tech like satellite and AI solutions can help utilities manage things that are within their control.
Climate Tech: Empowering, but Challenging
Climate technologies can help every department, from executive management to the field team, to get their hands on current insights and data with the click of a button. They enable dynamic environmental changes that can be factored into revised plans instantaneously.
However, change management — working with the human factor — is a challenge. After all, it’s human nature to be reluctant to change, especially around the adoption of new technologies or processes. Often in the utility industry, you will see basic work processes that have been in place for decades. Understandably, staff may not think these approaches need to be “fixed.”
In long-term planning, it is important to allocate time and resources to support change management. Training in the new technology and process is vital, with assurances that those who are not tech savvy will be able to use the new solution as long as they are willing to learn. But it is just as important for employee buy-in to make sure that employees understand the whys of making the changes with new technologies.
Learning incentives are another good option, as well as ample time to master the change. When employees know that they have time to learn and they aren’t going to be penalized if they don’t get it all right after the initial training, the change to climate tech for long-term planning is manageable.
A utility industry leader with more than 30 years’ experience in managing and transforming electric grids for resilience to climate change, Gary Huntley, is the former Vice President of Distribution Services for Entergy and an AiDash Advisory Board Member.