Climate Readiness for Utilities

May 16, 2019
With all the system improvements we’ve made over the last 10 years (and all the well-justified money our industry has invested), can we say we are now climate ready?

Many a utility engineer’s eyes glaze over when talk turns to global warming and climate change. It’s not that these issues are too technical, we thrive on technical.  It might be that these issues are far less black and white than Ohm’s law, so we tend to tune out, or worse yet acquiesce, because we have been the scapegoat for so long that it may feel useless to argue. While many of us in the utility sector continue in our own way to challenge the veracity of man’s role in global warming, the one thing we have and should continue to focus on is climate readiness.

It is trendy to obsess on climate change, but ask the folks who are doing the carping what they know about our Earth’s history, and one finds many are clueless.  The earth has experienced five or more major ice ages according to Wikipedia and we are, in fact, in an ice age now because the Earth has continental and polar ice sheets and glaciers.  Outside of ice ages, the earth appears to have been largely ice-free even in high latitudes. Over Earth’s history of at least 4.5 billion years, without man’s influence, we have gone from totally ice-covered to totally ice-free. Global warming and climate change are a natural occurrence.

While some scientists insist humans are affecting the natural cycles that cause global warming and cooling, many believe the impact we are having is inconsequential or will be otherwise compensated by natural cycles. Regardless, what is important is that warming and cooling cycles that have occurred throughout Earth’s history affect our oceans and our weather.

Over the last decade, a high percentage of utilities in the Northeast, Midwest, South, almost everywhere, learned some very tough lessons regarding the havoc extreme weather can play on utility infrastructure. Even discounting the 500-year and 1000-year storm events, records maintained by the  U.S. Department of Energy, tell us that thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards have accounted for between 50 and 75 percent of all outages since 2002. Aging infrastructure also has played a major role. 

As a result, the utility industry is spending billions of dollars to become better prepared for extreme weather events.  One of many examples is ConEd, which suffered severe damage over much of lower Manhattan, including the Wall Street area, due to flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy.  You can check out storm hardening changes ConEd made with regard to substation design, location and equipment in this short video:

EPRI issued several reports on distribution system resiliency in the 2013-2014 timeframe in which it discussed prevention, recovery and  survivability ( see their report for some good reference material:  EPRI’s reviews place vegetation management near the top of the list for prevention of outages on electric distribution systems.  Make sure you check out T&D’s June 2019 "Vegetation Management Supplement" prepared in cooperation with the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) for the latest on vegetation best management practices and company testimonials.   

The electric industry and utilities in general really responded after being walloped by mother nature in in the 2008 to 2015 timeframe. They doubled down on their risk management reviews, with assistance from the NERC CIP rules, and began a process of cost-effective system hardening with increased attention to system monitoring for early warning and trouble location and speed of recovery, including the use of advanced control capabilities such as automated switching. Digital technology has been of great assistance in the modernization process and numerous smart grid developments are adding to the available options. These include more responsive and cost-effective distributed energy resources and battery storage technology.

With all the system improvements we’ve made over the last 10 years (and all the well-justified money our industry has invested), can we say we are now climate ready?  If we are honest, we should admit it is a journey, not a destination.  We’ve been forecasting the weather for about 150 years and watching it for 10,000 or so. Mother Nature has been creating weather and changing it for about 3 billion years.  Some folks want to weaponize this natural phenomenon to traumatize a generation by predicting the world will end in 12 years or push other agendas by exploiting isolated events (see: Our job as utility engineers and planners is to wade through the hype and make reasoned judgments regarding how we can strengthen and improve our electric systems using today’s advanced technology and tools.  We proceed armed with several truths -- society is becoming increasingly dependent on highly reliable electric service, its our job to do our best to deliver it and we still cannot control the weather.  

About the Author

David Shadle | Grid Optimization Editor

Dave joined the T&D World team as the editor of the Grid Optimization Center of Excellence website in January 2016.

Dave is a power industry veteran with a history of leading environmental and development organizations, championing crucial projects, managing major acquisitions and implementing change. Dave is currently a principal at Power Advance, LLC, an independent consulting firm specializing in power project development, research and analysis, due diligence and valuation support. Dave is also a contributing consultant for Transmission & Distribution World. Prior to Power Advance, Dave held business and power project development positions with The Louis Berger Group, Iberdrola Renewables, FPL Energy and General Public Utilities. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Purdue University.

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