Photo by Con Edison.
A Con Edison worker with insulated tools approaches a downed distribution pole on a Yonkers street after a storm in March 2018.

Planning for the Extreme

June 3, 2024
Con Edison’s resilience plan is meant to prevent and mitigate outages, protect public safety, and reduce customer impacts and inconvenience.

Extreme weather events set some unwanted records in 2023: It was the hottest year on record and brought 20 named storms to the Atlantic Ocean — the most in a year since 1950. The Canadian wildfires affected life in New York City and other parts of the U.S., shutting down outdoor work and forcing the cancellation of recreational events.

Once the calendar turned, extreme winter storms plagued the country throughout January 2024. For example, high winds led to power outages for more than 500,000 East Coasters, raising concerns about how the electric grid would fare against more frequent, severe conditions. These extreme conditions will likely worsen, meaning utilities should take action on climate resilience planning to protect their equipment and customers.

Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, alongside ICF, learned some best practices for climate resilience and put together a comprehensive climate change resiliency plan. These practices include prioritizing community engagement, considerations of equity in disadvantaged communities, and an emphasis on public safety and reliability. At its core, plans need to take specific action but remain flexible, given the rapidly changing environment. As climate change continues to disrupt the lives of customers by causing outages, now is the time for utilities to build robust resilience plans.

Rules and Funding

Major institutions — such as the U.S. military, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Vatican — agree climate change is real and an existential threat is prevalent. The U.S. federal government is taking action. The Securities and Exchange Commission has announced rules (which have been stayed by a court) requiring publicly traded companies to disclose climate-related information, including physical risks. Major climate legislation, like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, has become law, supporting billions of dollars of grid resilience investments.

In late 2023, New York state’s electric utilities filed climate resilience plans with the state, requesting up to US$8.7 billion over the next 20 years to improve the electric systems. Across the country, state and federal government regulators will need to approve hundreds of billions of dollars to equip utilities with the funds necessary to enact resilience actions over the next 20 years.

Engage the Community

To build a strong climate resilience plan, it is crucial to proactively engage with regulators and community stakeholders throughout the process. This enables regulators to get on board early and have an appreciation for the utility’s strategic approach to this complex challenge. It creates a plan that is inclusive of the community and provides an opportunity for feedback from neighboring entities regarding their own adaptation goals.

Con Edison incorporated community perspectives into its plan by creating a stakeholder working group to start a discussion. Such a group should consist of representatives from local municipalities, regulatory staff and community groups — especially those giving voice to disadvantaged communities. It also is important to include other infrastructure owners in the region.

Local stakeholders can help to identify robust community benefits, which are key to an inclusive resilience plan. These benefits can include pursuing funding for resilience hubs together — New York City is already prioritizing resilience hubs —  partnering on facilities that support residents during outages, aligning on communicating issues to customers, and taking a collaborative approach to reducing carbon pollution and enhancing the community’s quality of life. The plan should focus on the benefits for all stakeholders.

Utilities’ climate resilience plans should reflect the realities of the communities they serve. Equity should be a key consideration. The impacts of climate change can affect some populations more than others, often making inequities in those areas worse. When utilities consider equity in their plans, they should focus on the distribution of climate impacts, the help that most vulnerable areas need, the factors that shape their vulnerability and how to offset those vulnerabilities.

A significant portion of Con Edison’s area is classified as disadvantaged communities that are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Extreme storms, heat waves and inland flooding leave people in these areas at more risk than those in other areas. For instance, residents of disadvantaged communities may have difficulty accessing transportation for safety. They also may face issues receiving health care if they are injured or become ill from a severe weather event. Con Edison will look to track the number of outages in disadvantaged communities and factor that data into future iterations of its resilience plan.

Utilities should identify which parts of their service area are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and consider additional resources or priorities for those areas. It is important to prioritize critical facilities like hospitals and transportation facilities, as they are vital safety hubs during extreme weather events. Keeping them online during critical periods should be a top goal for any climate change resilience plan.

Con Edison has also formed an internal environmental justice working group and released a corporate policy statement to apply an equity lens to its operations and programs. The company will apply these principles going forward as it learns from the effects investments may have on disadvantaged communities.

For robust resilience plans, utilities should seek partnerships with organizations that bring broader expertise on climate change, grid resilience, and modeling to help the utility think through key pillars of its strategy. For instance, Con Edison relied on ICF and Columbia University experts to translate the latest climate science into engineering needs for the company to make decisions, such as explaining pathway scenarios and temperature projections. This helped the company create its plan while bringing credibility that helped build trust with local stakeholders.

Be Transparent

Costs will always be among a community’s biggest concerns about changes in utility planning. Utilities should find the most cost-efficient solutions by using all the tools at their disposal to provide the best resilience value. For Con Edison, this is a multipronged strategy to address climate risks:

l Prevent by elevating sensitive equipment to avoid flood damage and taking other hardening measures

l Mitigate by reducing the impact through grid automation using devices like switches, autoloop circuits, reclosers and other measures

l Respond by using advanced metering infrastructure, storm response technology and other measures to enable faster restoration.

Through stakeholder engagement, utilities can develop a conversation about the potential costs, wide range of solutions and cost of inaction. An unfortified grid will be more susceptible to outages. Fortifying infrastructure to prevent or shorten outages of crucial facilities like hospitals, shelters and nursing homes is a matter of public safety.

This explanation may not be enough for lower-income communities where customers struggle to pay their bills. Utilities should continue to engage customers on their needs and work to raise awareness of applicable energy affordability programs. 

Options also exist to help make these necessary changes more affordable for everyone. Utilities can offer flexible payment options to help customers who are struggling. For example, Con Edison’s approach includes payment assistance tools as well as programs focusing on customers in disadvantaged communities and energy-efficiency programs for eligible owners.

With the federal government investing in climate resilience, utilities have a great opportunity to fund measures that will make their systems more resilient to the impacts of climate change without their customers carrying the entire cost burden. This is the time for building robust climate resilience plans that are safe and transparent, and to communicate the value of the resilience investments while also emphasizing equity. 

Maintain Flexibility

Climate resilience planning is not a one-time activity. Utilities will need to continue to evaluate changing hazard conditions and the effectiveness of their investments and actions, as well as evolving customer needs and technologies. Con Edison’s resilience framework is flexible and will be adaptable as conditions change.

A flexible resilience plan should include near-term strategies while also accounting for future programs based on projected climate conditions 10 years and 20 years into the future. Having a long-term outlook can reduce the cost of inaction, as resilience measures can be both proactive and adaptive to respond to changing conditions.

Resilience planning should leave room to consider new climate science and lessons learned from previous efforts. Con Edison’s plan identifies solutions that protect against near-term climate change impacts while also leaving options open to protect against changes emerging down the road.

As extreme weather events continue to happen at a higher rate and intensity, time and action are of the essence to implement quality resilience plans. 

About the Author

Judsen Bruzgul

Judsen Bruzgul, Senior Director, Climate Adaptation and Resilience: Judsen partners with US electric utilities to assess risks and build resilience to extreme weather and increasingly worsened climate change. He has provided expertise related to the technical, strategic, and policy challenges posed by climate risks for clients including Con Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, New York City, and other major infrastructure owners. since 2000. Before joining ICF, he worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, developing and implementing resilience policy recommendations.

About the Author

Nelson Yip

Nelson Yip, Director of Strategic Planning: Nelson Yip has 20 years of experience in utility operations, engineering, planning and energy policy. He is shaping Con Edison’s climate resiliency plans and clean energy strategy. As director of Strategic Planning, he advises senior leaders and their teams on building safe, reliable, clean and resilient infrastructure. He fosters innovative, sustainable and industry-leading solutions, while enabling effective decision-making and considering equity. Yip has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University and an MBA in Law & Business and Change Management from the New York University School of Business.

Voice your opinion!

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