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Black Skies and Blue in 2020: Supporting Growth While Preparing for Disaster

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The downside of annually predicting trends is that the exercise inevitably tempts you look back and evaluate the accuracy of last year’s forecast.  My January 2019 “Predictions and Trends” post focused on our industry’s increasing collection, use, and protection of data in support of utility modernization—and the role of private broadband networks in moving that data.  That trend did indeed accelerate in 2019, and it will continue for the foreseeable future. 

For the coming year, though, I see another, related trend—one that touches on a key motivator behind the data trend:  In 2020, utilities will increasingly recognize that frequent black sky days are the new normal—and we will build systems that help us react to those emergencies even as they support our blue sky operations and long-term growth strategies.  Our need to respond to disasters will drive us to implement systems that also provide substantial benefit during regular operations.  And yes, many of those systems will generate, communicate, and analyze data.

Black Skies Darkening.  From wildfires in California and a major earthquake in Puerto Rico to expected cyberattacks from Iran, utilities are responding to disasters more frequently in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue.  To prepare, the industry is taking action to harden its infrastructure and install systems that will increase the resiliency of operations.  For example, Entergy recently constructed two new transmission control centers to centralize and consolidate operation of its bulk electric system, constructing the buildings to withstand EF5 tornadoes.  Pacific Gas & Electric recently announced plans to install insulated power lines in areas at highest risk of fire. 

A Silver Lining.  Some of these efforts to prepare for black skies can also help us operate when the sky is blue.  San Diego Gas & Electric, for example, is working to deploy a system that can sense a broken line and cut power before it hits the ground.  Similar efforts to identify changes in the distribution network to improve the efficiency of energy delivery and avert or recover from operational malfunction require sensors throughout the grid, sensors that generate tremendous amounts of data.  With secure broadband connectivity, that data can be captured and processed at the edge or communicated to central systems for analysis and action—both to respond to emergency conditions as well as to improve efficiency in daily operations.  Examples include Volt/Var Optimization controls that increase grid efficiency and FLISR (fault location, isolation, and service restoration) systems that re-route power around problem areas.

Being Proactive.  Installing steel poles, insulating conductors, deploying resilient infrastructure—all of these are proactive measures the industry is taking to get ahead of the risk.  But risk mitigation needn’t be blind to long-term growth.  Private broadband networks, both wired and wireless, serve as the platforms for systems that reduce the damage caused by disasters and help the utility recover in the disaster’s wake.  Properly secured broadband networks, using modern technologies like LTE, can help defend against cyberattack and mitigate their impact.  Importantly, even as it bolsters disaster prevention and response, private broadband further enables utilities to integrate and manage distributed energy resources, reduce carbon footprint, and serve customers.  It can even open new revenue opportunities.  This is the kind of black-sky preparation utilities will undertake in 2020 that will benefit blue-sky operations for decades to come.

Mike Brozek's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 29, 2020 10:35 pm GMT

From wildfires in California and a major earthquake in Puerto Rico to expected cyberattacks from Iran, utilities are responding to disasters more frequently in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue

Cyberattacks weren't a thing decades ago, and the wildfires etc. have certainly increased in recent years, but the necessity of resilience of the grid is not a new concept. What do you think has shifted about utility leaders' mindsets that is finally forcing action? Is it the visibility of the disasters?

Mike Brozek's picture
Mike Brozek on Feb 3, 2020 8:54 pm GMT

Thanks Matt.  I believe it’s a combination of greater visibility of disasters, utility liabilities related to the causes, and higher customer expectations of their electricity provider.  Our society grows more dependent on electricity every day and customer expectations rise along with it.  Utilities are investing billions to upgrade their systems to meet these demands.  They realize the communications systems that enable this technology must be fully operational when the power is out.  Private LTE offers them the ability to have coverage where they need it, resiliency to withstand natural disasters, and necessary cyber security defenses.  When you own the network, you make those decisions.  When you don’t own the network, someone else makes those decisions.

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