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How US utilities can raise preparedness for severe weather events

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Mirka Karra's picture
Brand Journalist NET2GRID

A natural communicator holding an International & European Studies degree and pursuing a Master's in Digital Media, Communication and Journalism, with a specialization in European Journalism....

  • Member since 2021
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  • Oct 11, 2021
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During the summer of 2021, extreme weather events across the world showed us the catastrophic consequences of climate change in our daily lives. In the United States, unprecedented heatwaves, catastrophic wildfires, and torrential floods led to the loss of human lives and widespread destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, property and infrastructure was destroyed, and the impacts on flora and fauna are extensive. The frequency and magnitude of these events have put extreme stress on the already aging US electricity infrastructure. Utilities in states like Texas (last winter), or Louisiana (this summer) have been unable to provide power to large numbers of households, for days or weeks at a time, amidst extreme temperatures which have put lives at risk and have caused severe disruptions throughout the grid. In Texas only, the crisis left 4,5 million homes and businesses without electricity, some for many days, while the estimated economic damage amounted to a staggering 195$ billion.

 

Challenges and opportunities

Extreme weather phenomena are only expected to increase in severity and frequency, prompting utilities to increase grid resilience, secure operational preparedness, and acquire better intelligence to mitigate the impact of disruptive climate changes. As the White House is pursuing a massive infrastructure plan to accelerate the energy transition to clean energy, upgrade the nation’s power grid, and improve infrastructure resilience, many opportunities lie ahead for utilities. So how can utilities expand existing knowledge to capitalize on the new energy package and be better prepared for future climate change challenges?

 

Investing in demand response programs

Long gone are the times that the relationship between the utility and the customer was purely functional and transactional. Nowadays, the measures that utilities could follow to reduce energy load in the grid during periods of peak demand, the so-called demand response, are directly connected to their customers. Frequent multi-day blackouts to mitigate fire risk, and skyrocketing energy bills during periods of crisis, have already generated tremendous customer dissatisfaction. Transparency and better consumer education are essential to reversing this trend. Technology allows utilities to better advise customers on how to respond during extreme weather events. These so-called Behavioural Demand Response programs provide recommendations to consumers to reduce or shift demand to help balance the grid, offering compensation for doing so. Another interesting aspect is that demand response programs can improve customer loyalty for example by promoting a sense of community where customers’ individual contributions aid in the prevention of blackouts.

 

 

Managing load in the grid by having better insights

Presently, there is a tremendous opportunity for utilities in the United States to gain deeper insights into customer energy demand and production. Advancements in data technology have resulted in significantly improved demand and supply forecasting. Artificial intelligence can now predict growth indexes of residential solar production, and forecast exactly when residential demand and photovoltaic production outliers or spikes are going to occur. This information cannot only improve day-to-day operations but also improve energy providers’ response to extreme weather events. For example, utilities can reach out to people who have solar installations, storage systems, and electric cars and offer them compensation to feed the grid in order to maintain grid balance.

 

What’s up for the future

Severe weather events are expected to increase in number and intensity, and utilities should explore options to mitigate the impacts of these events. Weather disasters have already cost the U.S. over $1.9 trillion since 1980. Failure to maintain and upgrade infrastructure can expose utilities to legal action and financial risks when they are held responsible for effects that severely impact their customers and society as a whole. Examples of this include being held responsible for causing wildfires, for failing to supply the necessary electricity to power medical devices at critical moments, and others.

Innovations in data capture and artificial intelligence among others can enable utilities today to improve their emergency management and transform the relationship with their customers from transactional to relational. At the same time, utilities will gain a more sophisticated understanding of electricity demand and supply, allowing them to better and more efficiently serve their customers.

 

Sources:

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview | National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) (noaa.gov)

The Day - Eversource appeals penalty over tropical storm response - News from southeastern Connecticut

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 11, 2021

Demand response is an intersting solution here-- there's value in getting customers signed up for somewhat regular demand response engagement, but the key is can you get them signed up and 'trained' in time for the severe event that will truly need them and test their effectiveness.

What sort of evaluation processes do you think are in the typical utility process to know whether these programs are ready come 'show time'?

Emily Fisher's picture
Emily Fisher on Dec 7, 2021

Hi Matt, 

 

You raise such an important question. I think that there is no one "typical" utility process to know whether these programs are ready, but I believe that the key lies rather in building up customer engagement and customer trust to suitable levels before these kinds of extreme events occur. This is why it's important for utilities to make investments in these kinds of solutions as soon as possible and to start building the customer journeys that will position them as their end-consumers trusted advisors throughout the energy transition and throughout the coming effects of climate change. 

Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Oct 14, 2021

Yes, we will need to do all those things. Unfortunately I think it will be insufficient. Lots of infrastructure will need to be hardened against the "100 year storms" which will be coming much more frequently. Pylons, substations, nuclear plants built by the sea - a particular worry - and other structures. I wrote about one such event and the UK response here: https://energycentral.com/c/gr/keep-your-head-above-water.

Emily Fisher's picture
Emily Fisher on Dec 7, 2021

Hi Julian,

 

Excellent point and excellent post. Certainly, investing in solutions to engage customers with demand response and other similar use cases should only be one strategy in a portfolio of strategies aimed at bolstering resilience. Because infrastructure investments often take years or even more than a decade like the one you mentioned in your post, demand response can be a critical strategy during this transitional phase and to start preparing customers for an energy future based on non-controllable generation sources and battery constraints. 

It's interesting also to consider how smart meter data can be used for grid planning and prioritizing the most critical and strategic infrastructure investments. 

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Oct 28, 2021

The reality is most of the large organized wholesale markets across the continent have some form of demand response or price sensitive load offers in their markets. If one does a deep dive, you will find that participation is tepid at best, most homeowners and businesses are generally not interested in participating, the money just doesn't outweigh the risks and inconvenience. Also, if one goes into one of the operating centers of major utilities or ISO/RTOs you will see a tremendous amount of storm preparedness, early forecasting, prepositioning of assets and posturing the system to be in the best possible shape to weather the event. I personally feel gathering billions of terabytes of data and using AI to process it may have some benefit, but that benefit has an overstated benefit to organizations that have been doing storm preparedness for over 100 years.

Emily Fisher's picture
Emily Fisher on Dec 7, 2021

Hi John,

 

You raise some interesting points. What we've found with our clients operating in the residential market is that customers are indeed interested in money and energy-saving insight from their electricity suppliers as long as the incentives are calibrated for the particular market and as long as work has been done to engage customers and build trust. 

 

You mention that major utilities have been investing in storm preparedness for over a hundred years which is super encouraging, however, we can also identify examples where these investments fell short due to the rapidly changing and intensifying nature of the weather events that we're seeing today. 

 

Demand response and customer engagement cannot and should not replace investments in boosting the resilience of critical infrastructure, however, these kinds of customer-focused approaches to building resilience can be extremely useful during the transition period while these infrastructure investments are being executed and can help to prepare customers for an energy future based on non-controllable generation sources and battery constraints. Especially for the consumers of tomorrow who are very invested in mitigating the effects of climate change, these kinds of solutions can deliver extreme value both to utilities and to their consumers. 

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