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Natural Disaster Risks to Utility Infrastructure Management (Part 4)

POSTED BY: Ashley Little on 10.24.2017

natural disaster floodFor joint use asset owners that are already stretched thin managing their plant, the trend of more frequent and more powerful natural disasters is a threat. If climate scientists are correct, events like the hurricanes and wildfires that have plagued the U.S. in the last month can be expected to occur more often, with even more devastating results.

The physical damage to power and communications infrastructure will cause even further strain.

 

Our Infrastructure is Vulnerable

 
The U.S. is reeling from a dual hit: from Hurricane Harvey followed soon after by Hurricane Irma. During Hurricane Harvey, more than 300,000 power outages were reported across Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Irma knocked out power to almost three-quarters of Florida homes and businesses – more than 6.5 million residents – making it one of the largest natural disaster power outages in U.S. history. This came on the heels of a decade-long effort by Florida Power and Light to bolster its power grid, after Hurricane Wilma knocked out power to millions of Florida residents in 2005. 

 

Florida Power and Light’s work on strengthening power lines and updating technology may have minimized the damage from Irma and may have helped speed recovery efforts by allowing the company to automatically reroute power and address about 1.5 million outages. 

While some aspects of the U.S. power and communications grids’ distribution systems are underground, that option is neither affordable nor accessible in all areas. In Florida, the risks of storm surge and seawater incursion make it impractical to run lines beneath the surface in some areas.

The fact is, no matter how well the industry is prepared, “hurricanes, earthquakes, storms, and other natural and man-made disasters can cause significant damage to the energy grid, creating widespread power outages” (EEI.org).

According to the Insurance Journal, the combination of higher average global temperatures, more destructive storms and hurricanes, and increased risk of wildfire will “ultimately worsen risk for utilities.” The publication also noted that the U.S. insurance industry has identified a “$20 to $55 billion annual financial loss from power outages caused by flooding, hurricanes, and extreme temperatures.” 

Recovery: Utilities Rally to Get Customers Back Up

 
When the immediate danger from massive storms and other natural disasters has passed, power and communications companies respond as quickly and efficiently as possible to restore service to the large numbers of affected customers. This task can be nearly impossible to manage alone, considering some of the huge numbers of outages from storms such as Harvey, Irma, and other notable U.S. hurricanes:
  • Hurricane Sandy (2012): 8.2 million people without power across 24 states along the east coast
  • Hurricane Wilma (2005): 3.2 million people lost power in Florida
  • Hurricane Katrina (2005): 2.6 million people lost power across the U.S.
  • Hurricane Andrew (1992): 1.4 million outages

The restoration and rebuilding process begins by ensuring that power is no longer flowing through downed lines, and then proceeds based on a series of established priorities. Damage is first repaired to power plants, transmission lines and substations. Then, critical facilities such as hospitals and water treatment plants are restored, followed by supermarkets, gas stations and other important community services.

An efficient restoration process requires sufficient logistical expertise, skilled workers, and specialized equipment. In the case of a massive outage or event, no single utility can manage the response on their own. 

Getting Help from Mutual Aid Agreements

 
As the gusts from Hurricane Irma began to die down, Florida Power and Light had already assembled the “largest army of restoration workers in U.S. history from nearly 30 states.” Returning power to all those affected will likely entail the help of 50,000+ workers from across the U.S. and Canada, according to Southern Company CEO and Chairman Thomas Fanning.

This swell of support is possible because of the power of mutual aid agreements. These agreements exist to organize the rapid sharing of emergency aid and resources before, during and after an emergency event. The agreements may be formal or informal, and can include the sharing of personnel, equipment, and supplies.

Many mutual aid agreements exist between individual or groups of companies and organizations. For example, Edison Electric Institute represents U.S. investor-owned electric companies and maintains a mutual aid program that is a voluntary partnership of electric companies nationwide to help each other restore power efficiently.

The problem is that many mutual aid agreements are informal “handshake” agreements: a company knows which other companies it can count on in an emergency situation. However, the absence of a formal agreement or data regarding how many skilled linemen are available at a particular time can make response preparations chaotic and time-consuming – during a time when every second counts.

In our next post, we discuss mutual aid agreements, how they work, and some of the fundamental problems that exist. Laterwe will dive into suggestions for improving these agreements and the response to emergency events that help improve the restoration process for utilities and their customers.

What are the kinds of processes your company has put in place to ensure mutual aid exists when disaster strikes? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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Topics: Infrastructure Asset Management

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