Peter Paplanus/
51379610264 B98f0284dd K

Thriving in the Dark: Why Adaptation Matters for Salamanders and Utilities

Nov. 6, 2023
When one considers that certain utilities have faced numerous devastating weather events, each causing damages worth millions or even billions of dollars, it becomes evident that adaptation may well be worth the investment.
In my junior high school years, I had the opportunity to tour Blanchard Springs Caverns, a captivating cave nestled in northern Arkansas. The cave's subterranean world left a lasting impression on me, but what intrigued me most at the time and continues to intrigue me to this day are the Ozark blind salamanders that live in its spring-fed waters. These unique creatures have spent generations in complete darkness, adapting to a consistent and difficult environment. They have no pigmentation and are blind (their eyelids fuse shut as adults), yet these salamanders have thrived in the cave's ecosystem since their ancestors ventured in and were unable to find their way out. They adapted to their new surroundings.

Now, you might be wondering, "Why the biology lesson?" Bear with me, and the connection will become clear. In my previous column, I delved into the pressing issue of climate change, the record-breaking heat of this year, and the surge in severe weather events, all of which pose significant challenges for grid owners and operators in their service territories. I emphasized that we must prepare ourselves and our infrastructure to exist in a harsher, less hospitable world. This isn't a new concept, and the electric utility industry is already actively engaged in what they refer to as 'grid adaptation, hardening, and resilience' (AHR). I’m familiar with grid hardening and resilience, but the addition of adaptation to create the new acronym AHR is new to me.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) articulates AHR as the ability not just to recover from extreme weather events, but also to proactively address a wide range of potential threats, including extreme weather, wildfires, earthquakes, and cyber or physical security attacks. In essence, it's about acknowledging that these unexpected severe events are no longer unexpected. They are certain to occur, and mere preparedness for recovery is no longer enough. Transmission and distribution (T&D) grid owners and operators must proactively fortify and prepare the electricity infrastructure and possibly alter its design and operation to withstand extreme events, be it climate-related or due to physical and cyber threats.

Resilience, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is the capacity to endure and swiftly recover from hardships, or in simpler terms, toughness. To understand 'grid hardening' in the context of the electrical grid, I had to go beyond dictionary definitions. I found several definitions from various sources that generally define grid hardening as strategic measures taken to establish a robust infrastructure capable of mitigating risks and withstanding the repercussions of severe and catastrophic events. For years, utilities have concentrated on hardening and enhancing resilience to improve recovery from 'black sky hazards.' When we contemplate this definition of hardening, it's conceivable that grid adaptation and hardening are, to some extent, synonymous. However, I'm not entirely convinced that they are one and the same. Hardening bolsters the existing grid and infrastructure that have been in place for decades, while adaptation implies something more profound—a necessity for change and potentially a redefined purpose.

Several investor-owned utilities have already embraced AHR. According to EEI's Electric Power Industry Outlook published in February 2023, its member companies have invested over $1 trillion in critical energy infrastructure over the past decade. Moreover, in 2022 alone, nearly $30 billion was invested in AHR initiatives. I couldn't find AHR statistics for public power utilities or cooperatives. This might be because they haven't yet adopted the term or possibly because they haven't fully embraced adaptation. It's likely that some are investing in adaptation without necessarily using the AHR acronym.

I've read countless articles and listened to utility employees talk about how quickly they've restored power, even in scenarios where unprecedented numbers of poles, wires, and transformers were damaged, leading to disruptions for countless customers. Swift restoration is commendable, but the ideal scenario is not losing power at all. Utilities have made substantial investments in vegetation management, replacing analog systems with digital ones, incorporating sensors for enhanced visibility into system operations, harnessing data analytics and machine learning to reroute power, and numerous other initiatives to enhance resilience and hardening. These efforts are indeed commendable, but creating an infrastructure that won’t be severely damaged or destroyed by extreme events and will ensure customers never lose electricity is the real goal.

Every engineer, operator, and executive within the utility industry is acutely aware of this challenge. They would undoubtedly welcome an endless supply of resources to make it a reality. Designing and constructing a grid capable of withstanding extreme weather events and resisting malicious attacks, both of which are occurring with increasing frequency, is a monumental undertaking with an enormous price tag.

Yet, when one considers that certain utilities have faced numerous devastating weather events, each causing damages worth millions or even billions of dollars, it becomes evident that adaptation may well be worth the investment. Instead of merely creating a stronger, more resilient version of the same grid, we must consider rethinking its design and function. This might involve the integration of more distributed generation, such as microgrids or energy storage, encouraging and aiding customers in becoming prosumers, embracing virtual power plants (VPPs), and exploring concepts and technologies yet to be defined or created. Many utilities are already incorporating some of these strategies, signifying that adaptation is becoming an integral part of their approach. However, is it happening quickly enough? I don’t know, but one thing is clear: just like the Ozark blind salamanders thriving in their dark cave ecosystem, adaptation is imperative for thriving in the future of the electricity industry. T&D World covers the latest technologies and projects that are improving and transforming the industry, so you can expect that we’ll be talking more about AHR in the coming months and years.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!