Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes: How utilities are preparing for a summer of storms

With the Atlantic hurricane season almost a week underway and California’s wildfire season quickly approaching, electric utilities are putting increasing emphasis on system hardening and restoration. The threats go beyond those two disasters, but utilities’ responses carry consistent themes of enhanced customer communication, improved system visibility and grid hardening efforts.

Power companies that previously faced devastating storms are turning to stronger utility poles and advanced sensors, among other steps. Proactive customer engagement is also becoming the norm, while new grid modernization efforts mean utilities can locate and repair outages much more quickly.

Utilities may face tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, nor-easters, earthquakes or mud slides.

“There are regional specific differences between all areas of the country, across all manner of threats,” said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute. “The common theme is, it’s better to prepare for the worst than to be caught flat footed.

“Each storm is different and has extraordinary characteristics … [but] anecdotally more than empirically, recovery times are quicker by all measures.”

Scott Aaronson

Vice President of Security and Preparedness, Edison Electric Institute

EEI represents U.S. investor-owned utilities, and Aaronson told Utility Dive that all of its members have response plans in place that they practice “with varying degrees of repetition.” While it can be difficult to compare outage recovery times, he said there is no doubt utilities are improving.

“Each storm is different and has extraordinary characteristics,” Aaronson said. But, “anecdotally more than empirically, recovery times are quicker by all measures.”

“The industry as a whole has revamped how we do mutual assistance,” said Aaronson. National response efforts developed after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 allowed the industry to accelerate the number of resources that can be moved into affected areas.

Hardening, modernization efforts show results in Florida

Aaronson pointed to Florida as evidence new strategies and technologies are working. When Hurricane Wilma struck Florida in 2005, it took more than two weeks for Florida Power & Light to return power to 95% of customers. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, affecting more than 4.4 million customers, it took the utility less than a week to reach that recovery milestone.

Investments in storm hardening and better response strategies are leading to “wholesale improvement in recovery process and times,” said Aaronson.

“There is no utility that is hurricane-proof … We know there will be outages. But we certainly saw the difference between Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017.”

Bill Orlove

Spokesman, Florida Power & Light

The hurricane season of 2005 was “a wakeup call,” Florida Power & Light (FPL) spokesman Bill Orlove told Utility Dive.

“There is no utility that is hurricane-proof,” Orlove said. “We know there will be outages. But we certainly saw the difference between Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017.”

Ahead of Hurricane Irma, the utility pre-staged thousands of utility workers throughout the state and mustered a restoration workforce that grew to 28,000. The utility also saw the benefits of billions in investment in grid hardening and modernization, including turning to reinforced or concrete poles.

“We saw that our infrastructure held up well during Hurricane Irma,” Orlove said.

Some of the recovery improvement can be credited to Itron, a technology and services company that helps utilities control and manage their grids. The company has helped FPL to manage almost 4,000 automated feeder switches and 20,000 line sensors, and last year the two companies signed a seven-year renewal contract for those services.

“You are never going to be able to prevent all storm damage,” Matt Smith, senior director of grid management at Itron, told Utility Dive. “So our focus shifts to … what can we do to get power back as quickly as possible?”

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Itron’s monitoring capabilities allow outages to be located quickly, leading to faster restoration. With FPL, it is piloting pole sensors that can measure tilt and shock. On the other hand, many utilities are still “driving the lines” after a storm, said Smith, in order to locate downed lines or damaged equipment.

Sending out a crew to locate a fault is inefficient, slow and likely means they will have to then make another trip to procure the necessary tools and equipment, said Smith.

The goal is to be able to remotely locate the defect, isolate the issue and restore power to as many customers as possible, and then send the crew. “The more that they can understand right up front, the better they can get crews to the right location as fast as possible,” said Smith. “We provide infrastructure that allows utilities to keep eyes and ears open during a storm.”

A community approach to undergrounding 

Up the coast from FPL’s service territory, Jacksonville Energy Authority has adopted a similar-pronged approach to improving resilience for its 466,000 electric customers.

“Every year, we undertake storm hardening exercises, but we really hadn’t been hit directly until Hurricane Matthew and then Irma,” JEA President and COO Melissa Dykes told Utility Dive. “We had the chance to put to test all the improvements we’d made.”

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew left about a quarter million Jacksonville customers in the dark; a year later, Irma left 280,000 without power.

“We’ve been putting additional sensors onto the grid to give us more central control, so we can respond much more quickly and minimize outages.”

Melissa Dykes

President and COO, Jacksonville Energy Authority

The community-owned utility uses an eight-year pole replacement cycle and 2.5 years for tree trimming. It has also been utilizing new sensor and control technology — an increasing trend as utilities digitize various parts of their systems.

“We’ve made investments to make the grid much more self-healing,” sad Dykes. “We’ve been putting additional sensors onto the grid to give us more central control, so we can respond much more quickly and minimize outages.”

Jacksonville also has a program that allows individual communities to choose to underground power lines, paid via a property tax assessment once 75% of the community is on board, via a petition of benefitting properties.

 “They effectively pay for it themselves,” said Dykes.

The city’s utility has also developed a communications plan designed to keep customers updated with the latest information, so they can “understand exactly where we are in the restoration process,” sad Dykes. In previous storms, the utility sent out erroneous messages to customers that power had been restored when it had not.

“We are prepared, going into this season,” said Dykes. “That’s the great thing about having lived through two storms and provided mutual assistance. We have so much experience and the ability to put to work armies. Combined with the communications plan, it has positioned us to be more prepared than ever.”

“Hard experience has taught us many lessons,” said Dykes.

That focus on communications is becoming common, said EEI’s Aaronson. Technology has made it easier for companies to reach customers, through a variety of channels.

“Companies recognize customers can actually be patient, if you explain to them the issue and that someone is working on it,” said Aaronson.” Customers understand a storm came through; what they don’t like is being left in the dark — both literally and figuratively.”

Aaronson also said there is tremendous value in communicating with customers before emergencies strike, “on blue sky days.” This can position utilities to become “a source of safety information, and a trusted voice.”

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Similar to hurricane-prone Florida, Aaronson pointed to utilities in California who will be tasked with informing customers about wildfire dangers — and the potential for proactive power shutoffs, to reduce the risk.

Keeping them informed “is a really valuable way to get customer buy-in,” said Aaronson.

California utilities working together on customer education plan 

California’s devastating wildfires killed more than 100 people in 2017 and 2018 combined, destroying communities and necessitating a full rebuild of some distribution systems. Utilities face billions in potential liabilities, leading Pacific Gas & Electric to declare bankruptcy earlier this year.

The state’s lawmakers last year passed legislation requiring utilities to take steps to ensure their systems are not causing fires, possibly when power lines fall during high winds. State regulators recently approved the new wildfire mitigation plans required by the law, after requiring improvements to communication protocols surrounding proactive power shutdowns.

PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison (SCE), are working together on a public education campaign surrounding the Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), which are to be used only as a last resort.

“You are never going to be able to prevent all storm damage. So our focus shifts to … what can we do to get power back as quickly as possible?”

Matt Smith

Senior Director of Grid Management, Itron

The utilities are “still in the early days” of the education campaign, an SCE spokesman told Utility Dive.

“We launched the digital marketing and search engine optimization elements of the campaign,” the spokesman said. “We anticipate that over time this campaign will significantly increase Californian’s preparedness” for potential PSPS events.

The campaign also runs alongside a “very robust schedule” of community meetings SCE is planning for the summer.

PG&E said its “ongoing and expanded efforts” to keep its system safe include enhancing vegetation management around power lines, accelerated safety inspections in high fire-threat areas, and hardening the grid. The utility’s PSPS program has been expanded to include all electric lines that pass through high fire threat areas, including both transmission and distribution.

And as it rebuilds portions of the grid destroyed by fires, PG&E is working to make improvements. In May, the utility said it will bury distribution lines in the town of Paradise, California, and other areas in Butte County hit by the 2018 Camp Fire, which was caused by the utility’s equipment. 

Looking ahead to this season, PG&E is preparing to submit progress numbers to regulators, regarding vegetation management and inspection progress. And the utility said it is committing to helping its customers prepare. 

“As part of our outreach, we are using multiple channels to communicate with and help our customers access information,” the utility said, including direct mail, email, advertising and phone calls.

California’s wildfire season has typically begun in mid- to late summer, running into fall. But experts say it is no longer clear those norms apply, as more frequent and intense fires seem to be the “new normal.

The National Interagency Coordination Center on June 1 issued its wildfire potential outlook for the summer. 

Looking ahead to August and September, the report said for the West Coast “above normal significant large fire potential is expected due to fuel loading and preexisting dry conditions. A traditional winding down of the Western fire season is expected in Mid-September as fall moisture begins to arrive.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Melissa Dykes. She is president and COO of Jacksonville Energy Authority.


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