With climate change on the rise, utilities need to weatherize.

After a storm has passed, it can typically leave utilities in a frenzy to restore power to customers. In a battle against Mother Nature, utilities across the country continue to recognize the need to improve their grid performance as weather related events are becoming more frequent and severe. By improving grid reliability and resiliency, weatherizing and ultimately modernizing, utilities can limit the number of customers impacted and reduce outage times to help aid rescues and potentially save lives during a disaster. 

North America has experienced an upward trend of natural disasters since the 1980s, with 2020 notably encountering the most devastating abnormal climatic weather conditions to date. In 2020, North America alone experienced regional power outages due to climate change caused by abnormal climatic conditions. For example, the West experienced wildfires, hurricanes in the East, derechos in the Midwest, and an unprecedented snowstorm named Uri in the South that crippled the state of Texas’s power grid.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), during 2020 there were an astounding 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events which exceeded over $95 billion in damages, six more than any previous year. For comparison, the entire 1980s decade saw just 29 such events.

Climate change is expected to have expansive effects on the electric power grid that could result in the loss of billions to utilities and customers and have a long- term effect on the demand for electricity across industries. As climate change leads to more violent weather-related events, our electrical system becomes more susceptible to power outages, having enormous consequences on our society, economy and safety.

Is your power grid prepared for the next climatic power outage?

Enhancing Grid Performance with Reclosers

In the last decade, utilities have reduced the number of customers impacted by outages by installing intelligent grid technology such as smart reclosers on medium voltage lines. The automation capabilities of a recloser enable utilities to have more control over system performance while sectionalizing the grid. For example, if a line goes down during a storm, a recloser can automatically attempt to clear any temporary faults and isolate only that section of the grid to protect additional customers from being affected by that fault. Additionally, if the outage requires repairs, reclosers can help crews locate the source of the problem to quickly restore power.

To optimize grid resiliency and reliability, utilities have increased the number of reclosers installed per a certain number of customers. Previously, it was standard to install one recloser per every 1,800-2,000 customers. Today, a majority of utilities have determined to significantly improve grid reliability, there should be one recloser for every 400-500 customers.

An Aging Infrastructure

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy found 70 percent of power transformers and transmission lines are 25 years or older and 60 percent of circuit breakers are 30 years or older. Our electrical infrastructure was built to meet the demands of the 20th century. Now, under the stress of meeting higher demands, our electrical systems are vulnerable against more severe weather-related events – leaving our society at risk.

Even with aging infrastructure in place, with the right upgrades and strategic planning, utilities can strengthen their grids to lessen the downtime and help ease escalating outage penalties.

When aging infrastructure does fail, adding distribution automation solutions can help with fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR), respond to loss of voltage (LOV), and distribution automation hardware to enable utilities to improve power reliability and quality. Within seconds, these solutions automatically restore power to as many customers as possible in the case of a fault or loss of voltage on a feeder. Across a utility’s service territory, it can be extremely difficult and time consuming to determine the location of an outage before dispatching a crew to fix it. With distribution automation solutions in place, utilities can quickly locate the area, helping to reduce the outage time by several hours.

For a wide range of solutions that meet power grid needs of today and tomorrow, utilities should consider partnering with manufacturers offering a comprehensive menu of pre-engineered automation solutions — from simple automatic transfer schemes to complex SCADA/master station configurations.

Systems Hardening – Preventing Wildfire Ignition

For utilities in the western U.S., it could be beneficial to work with a partner capable of developing fire mitigation strategies that can be rapidly implemented across their electrical infrastructure. Products available on the market offer flexible solutions that help reduce wildfire risk to address safety concerns and satisfy regulatory mandates such as Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) requirements.

To improve system protection against wildfires, advanced recloser control solutions detect downed lines and stop power flow and can provide location alerts to help crews zero in on the fallen conductor. By installing this equipment, utilities can reduce sparking caused by electrical lines and, as a result, being the source of fire ignition.  

Investing in Resilient Technology

Utilities are not the only ones realizing the need to invest in our electrical system, so are government officials. As part of the plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure systems, the current administration is seeking to modernize the electric grid to make it more reliable and less susceptible to outages while adding clean energy from wind and solar.

While other upgrades will be necessary to completely weatherize our electrical systems, implementing scalable solutions will significantly improve the reliability and performance of our power grids with integrated automation solutions in place. By working with a partner that can provide solutions tailored to each region’s needs, utilities can quickly install equipment to help keep the power running during the storms of today and in the future.

shawnita mcneil g&w electric lazer automation
Shawnita Mcneil

About the Author:
Shawntia Mcneil is a Power Grid Business Development Manager for G&W Electric’s LaZer Automation team based out of San Antonio, Texas. She leads growth and strategy across Western USA/Mexico.