brush fire behind row of homes

Grid resilience: How to protect the U.S. against extreme weather

By Ruth Gratzke, President, Siemens Smart Infrastructure, U.S.

The U.S. power grid, one of our most important national assets, is being stressed in ways never before seen. Rolling blackouts have become an accepted norm in the West. In 2020, the total costs of U.S. climate disasters was $22 billion, as extreme weather events are predicted to rise year-over-year. At the time of this writing, 64 uncontained large wild fires are burning across multiple states. Clearly, now is the time to shift from defense to offense when it comes to disaster preparedness for energy delivery.

 

All eyes are on our electrical grid—from the U.S. government to utilities big and small, each stakeholder has a part to play in retrofitting our country’s critical infrastructure to ensure the next storm, flood, or fire does not result in days-long outages and insurmountable damage and loss. Now is not only the time to counteract the impacts of climate change, but to mobilize American ingenuity and create jobs in the process.

All eyes are on our electrical grid—from the U.S. government to utilities big and small, each stakeholder has a part to play in retrofitting our country’s critical infrastructure to ensure the next storm, flood or fire does not result in days-long outages and insurmountable damage and loss.

We see this with federal action—both from a policy and funding standpoint. The American Jobs Plan proposed a $50 billion investment for infrastructure resilience and the Biden administration most recently invested $1 billion to pre-disaster mitigation efforts, including grid resilience technologies. At the same time, there is a concerted push from Congress to incentivize utilities to do more to reduce natural-disaster and wildfire risks.

 

So as policy and funding tee up to match the need to protect the country against future storms, hurricanes, and wildfires, U.S. utilities face the major task of modernizing our energy systems. To proactively protect against devastation, action must be led at the utility level, yet the biggest question remains: where to begin on this arduous journey? Outlined below are the key priorities that U.S. utilities must take now for disaster preparedness.

 

Create a Roadmap

Prior to a weather warning in your area, all utilities must have a tactical action plan established to minimize risk. Whether handled in-house or with a consultancy firm, the first step is conducting a risk assessment of the area and the system. Identify and track all external threats to the electrical grid, such as tree limbs and vegetation that come in contact with conductors, as well as risks associated with the equipment itself, such as outdated and corroded hardware. Simultaneously, a plan on how to prioritize, evacuate, and mitigate damage amidst a disaster is also crucial.

 

Once these pain points are recognized, the utility must research and pilot new solutions, such as tools that incorporate digitalization of controls, cloud-based software for data processing, and automation solutions that allow for remote monitoring. The final step is to observe the new solutions, decide if the solution is a fit for expansion, and implement it systemwide. The ability to marry the “real” with the digital allows for a constant transfer of data, creating a continual loop of learnings that helps to optimize the electrical systems for the future.

 

Modernize the Grid for Resilience

Effective disaster mitigation initiatives are relatively new and many contemporary technology solutions have yet to be widely applied. However, when modern digital solutions are incorporated into our aging grids, we open a two-way dialogue of data that securely monitors, reports, and ultimately mitigates issues. Tools that automate, safely provide remote access, and add machine-learning capabilities to our critical infrastructure are needed to prevent future damage by alerting of spark risks, re-routing power, deciding when to go into island mode, and more. And as these technologies become more widely accessible, capital costs are driven down and resiliency is increased.

 

Automation

Automation allows for instantaneous fault identification and can provide restoration in the blink of an eye, or 200 milliseconds to be exact. This responsiveness only recently became possible due to advancements such as distribution-feeder automation systems and cloud-based fault localization. With demand growing modestly but consistently throughout the next several years, these systems are necessary to keep up with the increasing consumer pressure for reliable and uninterrupted energy supply, even in the face of extreme weather. Automating the locating and isolating of faults can create restoration efforts that go unnoticed by customers as the system intelligently decides, based on measured and load constraints, how to best perform the restoration of power to consumers. In some cases, cloud-based applications take on the role of the control room and automatically report, evaluate, and transmit data to a mobile device in the event of a fault. This instantaneous fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR) helps to keep critical spaces like hospitals, schools, and urban centers up and running.

 

Remote Access via IoT

We saw just how important remote accessibility is throughout the COVID pandemic, and this capability becomes even more necessary when dealing with dangerous and extreme weather. Operating comfortably from a control room, operators can now be alerted to failures by IoT devices such as reclosers and circuit breakers. When a device trips, operators can remotely open and close the device, or power down when necessary, minimizing spark risks which could ultimately lead to greater devastation.

 

Data Processing

As all things go digital, utilities will not only provide infrastructure and hardware the ability to communicate in real-time, but they will have the invaluable opportunity to gather great amounts of actionable data. However, the importance is not in the collection of these zeros and ones, but in the analysis—allowing for these machines to intelligently respond in the face of an incident, as well as use machine learning to add resiliency to our grid for the future. Software such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or microgrid controllers provide a platform on which to capture, monitor, and control information. In the case of microgrid controllers, islanding capabilities, “black start,” and grid resynchronization are enabled via real-time coordination of generation, storage, and loads. These capabilities ensure continual power even as the surrounding area experiences rolling blackouts.

 

Incorporate Microgrids

Microgrids currently provide less than 0.2 percent of electricity to the U.S., but deployment is rapidly expanding. These decentralized systems incorporate hardware and software to provide reliability, flexibility, and resilience—in short, they provide options. A microgrid can provide reliable power, lower energy bills, and aid utilities in managing peak load and controlling where the energy is sourced by incorporating renewable energy into the power mix. Both microgrids and distributed energy resources (DERs) provide a way to balance the need to meet carbon-emission reduction targets while ensuring reliable power during times when renewable energy is not available. Ensuring protection from losing power during natural disasters, microgrids can “island,” separating themselves from the main grid and allowing for continuous power for individual buildings, neighborhoods, or entire cities.

 

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As storm and wildfire seasons get longer and harder to predict, waiting is no longer acceptable when it comes to disaster preparedness. We have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to invest in 21st century infrastructure with the tools available today that harden and restore resiliency to the U.S. power grid— significantly reducing devastation, lessening property damage, and decreasing the likelihood of outages. As the priorities of Washington DC, U.S. utilities, municipalities, and Americans align, now is the time to take advantage of the technologies, guidance, funding, and policy put forth. Siemens stands ready to work with our partners, communities, and policymakers to invest in our future and finally modernize the U.S. power grid.

Pubished: July 28, 2021