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(With Video) From Stantec ERA: Are aging power grids ready for the future?

July 08, 2020

By Tony Pagán

Defending the grid from the impacts of age, climate change, and larger energy loads

Aging infrastructure, climate change, and consumer owned energy assets are shaping the world we live in. They are also affecting our access to power.

The power grid, which includes generating stations, substations, and power lines, is responsible for delivering power to our homes, buildings, and cars.

There are three aspects of the grid that need the most immediate attention. Not only is the existing transmission and delivery (T&D) equipment in the US showing its age but so is the software equipment used to monitor these delivery systems. Moreover, due to the popular use of new energy resources, we are running into capacity issues. 

In 2017, Hurricane Maria took out 80% of Puerto Rico's aging utility poles and transmission lines.

Power infrastructure needs an upgrade

Physical assets, including T&D structures, have a limited life expectancy. Many of the older poles, towers, conductors, and transformers have remained in service past their useful life and were not built with higher temperatures and more intense storms in mind.

Utilities are now playing catch up, making significant investments to upgrade and replace deteriorated assets with ones that are designed to withstand the wildfires ripping through the US west and the hurricanes tearing through much of the southern coastal states and islands.

Often triggered by aging T&D equipment, the number of wildfires is increasing at an alarming rate. In fact, the 2018 wildfire season in California was the most destructive and deadliest on record, burning almost 2 million acres.

Aging infrastructure, climate change, and consumer owned energy assets are shaping the world we live in. They are also affecting our access to power.

Replacing above-ground power lines and poles with underground facilities would seem like an obvious solution to these intensifying events. However, utilities are hesitant to adopt this solution, as underground lines remain vulnerable to extreme weather and are incredibly expensive. According to the Edison Electric Institute, burying above-ground electric distribution systems can cost up to $5 million a mile in urban areas. Thus, utilities are turning to an alternative and more affordable option known as fire-hardening—replacing wooden poles and towers with materials such as steel and concrete.

But fires aren’t the only issue. In the last decade, hurricanes have posed a major threat to T&D structures. For example, in 2004, Florida suffered a series of storms that wiped out power across much of the state. In response, parts of the state began upgrading their infrastructure by hardening their equipment. After installing poles that could withstand 145 mph winds, loss of power has significantly decreased in the state. 

Aging above ground power equipment still in operation.

Updating how we monitor our energy

Perhaps less obvious but just as critical to the safe and reliable operation of the grid is the software that power utilities use to remotely monitor control stations around the country, known as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.

Many of these SCADA systems were built in the 1970s and 1980s when cyber security was not considered a threat. They were built to boost efficiency and safety—but not to fend off cyberattacks. If successful, a cyberattack can potentially disrupt and shut down power to an entire nation for days.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March 2014 that if only 9 of the nearly 55,000 electrical substations in the US went down—whether from mechanical issues or malicious attack—the nation would experience a coast-to-coast blackout. In order to decrease future vulnerabilities, investor-owned utility companies will have to prioritize the security of these SCADA systems.

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The 2018 wildfire season in California was the most destructive and deadliest on record, burning almost 2 million acres.

Limited load capacity

In order to monitor grid reliability in its entirety, we must also look at the ever-increasing use of consumer owned energy, otherwise known as distributed energy resources (DER). DER's include wind, solar, and energy storage.

Utilities have designed their systems based on the conventional premise of delivering power to their consumers, not the reverse. When consumers install their own resources that produce electricity and send it back to the grid, the reverse flow can affect our outdated grid systems, creating new operational issues.

In a 2017 report, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) stated that “Without coordination with the distribution equipment on the grid, DER systems could actually cause voltage oscillations, create reverse power flows on circuits not designed for two-way flows, and cause other power system impacts that could actually increase the frequency and durations of outages.”

In order to regulate power and prevent outages, utilities will have to adopt grids that are more robust and dynamic. They’ll need the tools necessary to get ahead of DER adoption and predict usage, financial, and operational impacts.  

If successful, a cyber-attack can potentially disrupt and shut down power to an entire nation for days. 

Working together to upgrade our infrastructure

Upgrading our grid to a level that will meet aging assets, weather challenges, and the demands of today will require cooperation and collaboration with all stakeholders—utilities, regulators, policymakers, communities, and consumers.

Utilities will need to build robust and compelling business cases for these investments. Regulators will need to adjust their traditional cost-of-service ratemaking models to more effectively balance the utilities’ new risk profiles while serving their customers best interests.

The energy grid is a critical component of the nation’s infrastructure. The policymakers at the national, state, and local level should be looked upon for funding. Consumers should have a solid understanding of how installing their own resources can affect the national power grid.

Although upgrading our aging grid to 21st century standards is not easy or inexpensive, the cost of not doing so will far exceed that investment in terms of adverse effects on our environment, economy, and national security. 

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  • Tony Pagán

    An experienced project management professional, Tony specializes in electric transmission and distribution (T&D) projects and programs—in T&D infrastructure, substation, line, protection, and telecommunication equipment replacement and installation.

    Contact Tony
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