Moving Energy Infrastructure Forward in Wake of Hurricanes

Prevention, recovery, and survivability on the forefront of infrastructure in the wake of 2017 hurricane season

By Will Persyn

In the early hours of Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, plunging the majority of the 3,500-square-mile island into one of the longest, widespread power outages in modern history. Nearly one month later, approximately 80 percent of the island’s 3.4 million people were still without power.

While speedy recovery of the electric grid is paramount, Puerto Rico has stated their ultimate plan is to harden, modernize, and prepare their infrastructure for the future. This is critical, as Puerto Rico will undoubtedly be subjected to future tropical storms given their location.

According to significant research performed by the Electric Power Research Institute “EPRI,” efforts to harden the electricity grid must focus on three elements: prevention, recovery, and survivability.

 

PREVENTION

Preventing damage to the electric grid will require innovative technologies and changes in design standards, construction guidelines, maintenance routines, and inspection procedures. Future damage to the grid could potentially be minimized by utilizing steel versus wood poles, undergrounding stretches of lines that are not subject to flooding, and enhanced vegetation management.

Historically, grids throughout the world have been designed using non-standard components and custom designs. By standardizing designs, components could be interchangeable across the system and less inventory would need to be maintained, further reducing downtime.

In addition to high winds, catastrophic flooding that typically follows storm landfall often inundates critical electrical components and moisture-sensitive connections. By elevating key equipment and connections above worst-case-scenario flood levels, utilities can better protect electrical equipment from flood and water damage.

 

RECOVERY

The key to quick recovery is rapid damage assessment and prompt crew deployment. Employing drones, outage sensors, and smart controls would allow crews to pinpoint damage versus manually inspecting thousands of miles of electric grid. Identifying needed repairs has been problematic following significant storms, especially when routing crews through roadways blocked by fallen trees, debris, or landslides. Drones could be utilized to fly around such obstacles, allowing crews to visually assess issues so that when roads are cleared, they have the proper equipment and materials to complete repairs.

Another important aspect of recovery is funding for rebuilding. Since Hurricane Andrew, the cost and availability of insurance for electric grids has been cost prohibitive. Insurance products and other risk financing solutions, such as parametric insurance and catastrophe bonds, have emerged as potential new solutions for transferring hurricane damage risks from a utilities balance sheet.

A final key to recovery is emergency procurement and crisis pre-planning. Puerto Rico’s recovery was further hampered by the cancellation of its rebuilding contract with Whitefish Energy, given concerns about the contract award process. Utility companies should consider advance contracts or retainers with qualified contractors. The recovery process can be significantly advanced and questions about the procurement process avoided.

 

SURVIVABILITY

Survivability refers to the ability to maintain some basic level of electrical functionality in the event of a complete loss of electrical service. Key elements of survivability include: customer communications; using resilient technologies to supply critical infrastructure such as traffic signals, prisons, hospitals, and cell phones; and enabling consumers to use distributed generation.

Puerto Rico currently employs large, remotely-located power plants far from users. This results in the need for thousands of miles of electric grid. By deploying smaller solar and wind plants closer to customers, Puerto Rico could significantly reduce the electric grid system, ultimately putting less infrastructure in harm’s way.

Puerto Rico has the opportunity to significantly improve its electric infrastructure. With the need to rebuild its entire grid, Puerto Rico has the opportunity to employ significant advancements in grid materials, design, building methods, controls, and renewable energy made over the last decade.

The recent increases in storm frequency and severity shows we must develop and deploy tougher, more resilient power systems, and in few places is that more apparent than Puerto Rico. By focusing rebuilding and restoration efforts on the elements of prevention, recovery and survivability, Puerto Rico can put its infrastructure in the best position possible.

Will Persyn is Account Executive with Aon’s Global Power Practice. He may be reached at www.aon.com.

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