Extreme weather power outages must become a thing of the past

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Frédéric Godemel

2172 Last modified by the author on 21/12/2022 - 16:55
Extreme weather power outages must become a thing of the past


The effects of the extreme heatwaves and wildfires hitting continental Europe, the UK, China and parts of the US this year have been hard to ignore.

Record temperatures in the UK, for example, topped 40°C in July, with hot weather and drought conditions leading to scorched landscapes, wildfires and health warnings. Meanwhile, a surge in demand for power and reported ‘bottleneck’ on the grid, saw National Grid’s Electricity System Operator paying 5,000% the usual price of electricity per megawatt hour to avoid a power outage in London.

With extreme weather increasing due to global warming, nations cannot hope to pay their way out of potential disasters forever. Resilient energy systems are vital to keep serving customers whatever storm may come. Here's how to increase resilience against extreme weather.

Why does this issue matter?

Extreme weather is becoming more frequent – and its effects are getting worse.

As our world changes in the face of global warming, an increasing multitude of extreme weather patterns now affects regions that historically did not face such natural events. This places an economic and social strain on larger and larger swathes of the global population. The increase in natural disasters and severe weather seen globally demands a global change in how we distribute our power to increase resilience and limit the impact on communities.

Traditional energy distribution relies on networks connected by a number of nodes, overhead lines or underground cables. If one of those fails, the energy cannot be transmitted – that is, unless it is directed towards another appropriate route. When this assignment of a new route is done manually, it lacks efficiency. When multiple elements are broken or lost due to powerful, localized extreme weather events, the rerouting process is complex and time-consuming.

It is, therefore, essential that power systems worldwide continue to be updated to benefit from systemic resilience in the event of loss of centralized power due to weather events. The aims are as follows: predict and prepare for the expected impact, reduce the time to locate and isolate the faults, quickly define reconfigurations, enable progressive re-energization of the system, and optimize mobilization of resources for repair and full recovery of the normal situation.

The solution for all these aims starts with making grids smarter.

What does a smarter grid look like?

Grid modernization is seeing changes that could make grids far more resilient to extreme weather. This means the technology in the grid can predict the location of impact, reroute the energy, and mobilize repair resources.

This is achieved through smarter, digital grids, that can start the response through engaging their outage management system (OMS) modules – these can be part of an advanced distribution management system (ADMS). By predicting where an impact like a wildfire might hit, utilities can pre-emptively instruct the system to reconfigure energy to avoid an outage for customers, for instance by temporarily islanding a microgrid while engineers work to fix the damage.

Even when planning is not possible, utilities can rely on technology by using automatic network reconfiguration to reroute power. Many will leverage an optimized architecture based on motorized and communicating switchgear (circuit breakers, reclosers, sectionalizers) and Fault Passage Indicators (FPIs).

In short, grid operators can rely on higher-fidelity data availability, siloed data consolidation into integrated databases, and artificial intelligence (AI)-based applications for their decision-making. In essence, sensors and software produce data that enables well-judged, predictive, instantaneous, and automatic choices to protect citizens, businesses, and operations in moments of grid failure.

Say high winds bring down a tap. A smart grid pinpoints the closest suitable opportunity for a power diversion and automatically tells the network to use this route. Or, it could suggest activating other networks and microgrids, such as those connected to local wind farms, which could tide communities over until the grid is restored.

In a wildfire, while outage management reroutes the power supply, a fire management module can use geo-awareness to detect affected equipment, minimizing impact due to time saved and reducing potentially dangerous work for engineers.

Or perhaps a set of junctions have been flooded by stormwater. The outage management module predicts the damage and reroutes power while the grid is fixed. A digital twin for the network can identify what’s happened and why - reducing the time spent in diagnosis from hours to minutes. While engineers fix the lost nodes, customers aren’t left in the lurch.

How will this help battle the effects of extreme weather?

Beyond providing resilience, incorporating and transitioning to smarter grids based on data is crucial to the global shift towards greener, more sustainable energy. For instance, with a digital twin model of the network, engineers can replay the incident and figure out how to avoid it next time. By leveraging the full potential of digital technologies, energy grids can be incrementally improved with sustainable materials and approaches while costly disruption is reduced.

In a natural disaster or extreme weather event, critical services such as hospitals, emergency departments, and social infrastructure being cut off from power can have disastrous effects. To avoid the need for them to deploy their independent power – often coming from a diesel generator that’s far from sustainable – they must be able to rely on the grid’s ability to reroute power quickly. In a hospital, this could keep life support machines on the most reliable source of power possible. In care homes, this could keep vital heating units running. In schools, children can continue learning without disruption, whatever storm rages outside.

Time is of the essence

Governments and organisations are beginning to wake up to the systematic changes to be made to limit global warming and its effects. However, while those changes happen, consumers will still suffer these effects unless resilience is rapidly introduced to existing energy systems.

The answer is making networks smarter, so they can suggest better, faster, more sustainable decisions. This means that humans can then save time to maintain the resilient grid and plan to increase its resilience further in the future. This resilience makes the grid more sustainable, thus contributing to the longer-term goal of limiting climate change.

Through maintaining a resilient grid, organisations and governments can adapt to climate change, as well as make sustainable choices which curb climate change and save the earth for future generations.

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