3 Steps to Build Grid Resilience to Extreme Weather

This is part four of a series on climate change and the electric power industry.

As we explored in our last post, it is evident that the electric power grid cannot withstand severe storms related to the climate crisis without frequent, fix-it-now repairs. Aged power system components, obsolete maintenance practices, and an industry-wide focus on cost reductions have all created a power grid that is prone to weather related outages.

Expanded renewable energy resource utilization will increase stress on the electric power grid and accelerate the need for resiliency. Changes necessary for improved weatherization are also needed to accommodate renewable energy, so enhancing the grid will serve a dual purpose.

To build solutions that increase grid resilience and reliability, and better utilize electric utility resources, three steps are necessary:

  1. Develop diagrams to display multiple risk factors, including those related to atmospheric conditions.

  2. Create multidisciplinary teams at electric utilities to improve system performance.

  3. Enhance components so that the electric power grid can withstand extreme storms.

In this post, we’ll first investigate some issues that limit grid resiliency, and then explore the three steps necessary to build solutions.

Aged Components and Obsolete Practices Impair Grid Resiliency

Grid infrastructure is aged, as we discussed in our last post. Many substations and transmission lines that were built during the 1960s and 1970s remain in use today. The grid’s infrastructure was not designed for today’s conditions. When lagging efficiency, increased demand, congestion, and distributed generation are combined, widespread blackouts are inevitable unless innovations are developed and implemented.

However, aged doesn’t mean obsolete. Aged components that are maintained using incomplete practices are at risk of failing. To avoid this, aged components must be maintained with inspection intervals and maintenance practices that are tailored to existing and future electrical, structural, and environmental conditions.

Maintenance issues that are not related to electrical parameters are not always recognized by utility staff. When aged infrastructure hasn’t been properly maintained because utility staff do not fully understand materials, vegetation management, flood plain maps, and more, then innovative maintenance practices will not be implemented.

Issues may not even come to light until major damage occurs. For example, the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in 2018 was ignited by the failure of a structural element of a transmission line that was constructed nearly one hundred years prior. When Superstorm Sandy came ashore in New Jersey in October 2012, recovery was slowed because inundated substations were unusable until components were cleaned and dried.

Additionally, an industry-wide focus on cost reductions has led to frequent, fix-it-now repairs after a storm. This practice impairs electric utilities’ ability to implement proactive enhancements before severe weather hits.

Outdated Diagrams Limit Grid Operability

Utilities use operating diagrams, traditionally created with pen and paper, to display the configuration of their systems. Figure 1 is an example of an operating diagram for a 230 KV transmission system. The focus of these diagrams are electrical parameters – voltage (238 KV) and power transfer (45 MW and 50 MVAR). Other details such as line length or atmospheric conditions are not shown on operating diagrams.

Electric utilities use these diagrams when analyzing power system operation for two conditions: steady state operation and short circuit isolation. This focus on only two conditions limits utilities’ ability to understand other parameters that impact power line operability, especially under adverse conditions.

Step 1: Update Diagrams

Operating diagrams should be updated to include parameters that impact the response of the electric grid during adverse weather conditions. Updated operating diagrams should be multi-layered electronic drawings that display a variety of important parameters on hidden layers, which can be displayed as needed. Figure 2 shows an updated operating diagram with multiple layers displayed.

The first hidden layer could show all transmission lines that are built on double circuit towers, as well as all transmission lines that are within 100 feet of other transmission lines. The second hidden layer could show substations that are located in a 100 year flood plain. The third hidden layer could show all areas that are at extreme risk of wildfires. Other layers could show additional parameters as identified by new members of multidisciplinary teams.

Step 2: Create Multidisciplinary Teams

Traditionally, electric utilities have hired electrical engineers to design and maintain their grid infrastructure. Electrical engineers understand the intricacies of the electrical system; however, they lack certain perspectives that are not included in their field of study.

Instead, the electric power industry needs to create multidisciplinary teams that include material scientists, vegetation managers, meteorologists, metallurgists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers, security professionals, and reliability engineers to support the electrical and civil engineers they currently employ.

These specialists are better able to identify potential weaknesses in grid infrastructure and surrounding right of ways that would otherwise be missed. Multidisciplinary teams will be better able to anticipate and annunciate challenges created by aged equipment and extreme weather, as well as other non-climate related threats to system reliability, such as domestic and foreign terrorists.

By building a team with the right mix of people, all of whom understand different aspects of the components they are working with, overall grid resilience can be improved. Infrastructure can be appropriately maintained, and issues resolved, before a major stressor on the grid causes widespread outages.

Recognizing that multidisciplinary teams may be considered a nice addition if funds allow, rather than an essential part of the team, Prescient recommends that NERC consider establishing a power system resilience group (PSRG). This group would include multidisciplinary team members that focus on innovations to harden the electric power grid.

Step 3: Enhance Grid Components

In prior posts, we’ve discussed updates that will improve grid reliability, such as replacing overhead lines with underground lines and implementing other new technologies. Other necessary changes are to eliminate transmission line corridors and to protect substations from flooding.

Figure 3 shows six 230 KV transmission lines that were constructed on three separate structures, separated by less than 100 feet. A microburst of wind could knock down these towers and reduce power transfer capability by 3600 mega-watts. Should a severe storm occur, these transmission lines are vulnerable to simultaneous damage because of their proximity.

Relocating two of these lines will significantly reduce the vulnerability. This change will also reduce the likelihood of six lines being damaged due to a single act of sabotage or terrorism.

Another needed change is to clear distribution line corridors of trees that can fall on lines during ice storms, windstorms, and snowstorms. Figure 4 shows a typical 12.47 KV distribution pole that supports four distribution lines. These lines are at risk of damage due to tree falls during high winds often associated with severe weather.

Substations can be protected from flooding by elevating critical components on piers, by placing dikes around substations, and by installing large sump pumps to remove water from substations.

Finding the Funds to Stimulate Innovation

While improving the electric power grid will be costly, a simple solution to fund research and development would be to add a nationwide surcharge per kilowatt hour sold. In 2020, about 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity were sold in the United States. If a surcharge of only $0.0001 per kilowatt hour were added, the revenue from this charge would total around $400 million, which could be invested in research and development for grid enhancements.

4Ge (Fourth Generation) Electric Power

Prescient’s goal is to work with electric utilities and governmental agencies to identify innovations that are needed to create the next generation electric power system. We use the acronym 4Ge to imitate communication companies that use 5G to identify their next generation technology.

By updating grid infrastructure, the grid will be more resilient to climate change-related extreme weather, and better prepared for expanded renewable energy resources.

To learn more about Prescient’s recommended updates to improve grid resiliency and reliability, check out our next generation blog collection or our other posts, including:

To find out if your grid infrastructure is at risk due to climate change-related factors, contact us. We’re happy to discuss more about Prescient’s recommended innovations for the future electric power grid.

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