The Perfect Storm for Utilities – Weather, Fuel, Sparks and COVID-19

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions, Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

  • Member since 2002
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  • Oct 26, 2020

I worked for a power company for two decades. During that time, the relationship between management and the union was not ideal. There were strikes. I’ll never forget pumping out electric vaults in the middle of the night during one of those strikes. Yet there was one unifying principle between management and labor.

Keep the lights on.

We had hurricanes, ice storms, blizzards, damaging floods, and wicked thunderstorms during my time at the company. Each brought serious damage to the grid. And lots of power outages. During those times, the differences between labor and management evaporated. Getting the power back was everyone’s priority.

Intentionally disconnecting customers is anathema to every single utility employee.

The Perfect Storm and a New Mission

Yet, we have a new situation. Wildfires are become more frequent and extreme. They are fanned by high winds, fueled by acres of dry vegetation and fostered by extreme heat and low humidity. Add the impact of COVID-19 and we have the perform storm.

The problem is that due to these conditions, any spark or downed wire, could start an out of control wildfire. The Camp Fire was the most expensive and damaging fire in California history. It nearly destroyed the entire town of Paradise. An electric equipment issue allegedly started it.

The fact that an electric system mishap could trigger a wildfire meant something had to change. Intentionally disconnecting customers. This process is called Public Safety Power Shutoff or PSPS. The idea is to predict when a perfect storm is approaching. This happens when the combination of wind, dry fuel, high temperatures, and low humidity is ripe for a wildfire. That’s when utilities de-energize electric facilities in high fire zones. The idea is to eliminate at least one possible cause of a devastating wildfire.

Utility employees now need to rally around a new mission. Their new mission is to continuously improve PSPS to keep as many lights shining as possible. They can do this in these ways:

  • Harden the network in high fire-risk areas
  • Shorten the time of the PSPS by better monitoring of weather conditions
  • Limit the extent of the PSPS to only those areas at high risk
  • Engage all stakeholders

ArcGIS is helping.

Capture Information, Understand, Share

ArcGIS captures all the right information.

This helps to optimize the hardening of the network – to prevent failures. ArcGIS Utility Network can determine the weakness of the network. It can help prioritize maintenance and replacement. Precise modeling of structures and connectivity streamlines design and engineering. It helps to integrate corporate systems. Using ArcGIS, utilities can capture real-time sensor data from weather sensors for wind and humidity. This helps gives them the right information to optimize the time spent on PSPS.

ArcGIS helps utilities understand.

It provides insight into where to install automated switches at the boundaries of high fire risk areas. This helps limit the power outages to only those areas most at risk. Before, during and after the PSPS, utilities can analyze the processes for continuous improvement. They can capture imagery of the fire prone areas. Drones can get a full picture of the potential fuel near the electric lines. This helps to plan for vegetation management around the electric facilities in fire prone areas.

ArcGIS helps utilities share information.

Utilities use ArcGIS Dashboards to monitor exactly what’s going on in real-time. As situations improve, they can quickly respond to shorten the PSPS event. Utilities are putting in place ArcGIS Hub to actively engage stakeholders. These include the public, first responders, NGO’s, federal, state, tribal and local governments. It’s provides a central portal of knowledge and action.

As if things couldn’t get worse, we have COVID-19 to content with. This means that utilities must model vulnerable populations, locations of COVID-19 treatment and testing. This just adds to the perfect storm. It won’t stop. Wait until widespread vaccine administration areas become known. Each of those will also have to be factored into the planning and execution of PSPS events.

The mission of the power company is to keep the lights on. De-energizing even one customer for any reason creates real heartburn. Under these perfect storm situations, it becomes necessary. Utility employees, from corporate executives to the field workers, will treat PSPS like any other outage – they will work tirelessly to get the lights back on. That’s what they do. To learn more about how ArcGIS improves emergency management, download our free e-book Transforming Operations Management – A Complete GIS.

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Thank Bill for the Post!
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