Spring has sprung, and with it the start of the severe weather season. Coming out of one of the strongest El Niàƒ±os in the past thirty years, utilities should expect to see lasting severe weather effects through the spring season, beginning with the southern tier of the United States and spreading into the Midwest and Northeast as we go later into the spring months. Because the last few years have seen relatively low severe weather activity, this year’s return to what is considered to be a normal season might seem like an overwhelming increase in tornadoes, floods, hail and other severe weather events.
With severe weather becoming more frequent, utilities need to come to terms with that fact that weather management and response must become a proactive task, as the likelihood of severe weather increases, including the odds of getting hit with an extreme weather event. Weather events that occurred once every hundred years are now occurring once every ten. This will place increasing large strains on utilities already facing many challenges addressing aging distribution infrastructure.
As utilities and their workers gear up for what looks to be a stronger storm season than the past few years, it is a great time to start implementing strategies that help predict, plan for, and respond to, increasingly frequent and severe weather.
Severe Weather Growing
Increasingly volatile weather and its effects are largely in mind when thinking about the Earth’s current and future weather patterns. While there is no direct evidence of a correlation yet, scientists and meteorologists know that the changing climate has a relationship to the increased amount of moisture in the air, and the potential of an increase in severe, weather events.
In addition to the Earth acting in historically different ways, there are seasonal and geographic aspects that factor in to severe weather events. If an early snow falls in the Northeast behind a cold front, and the leaves are still on the trees, significant limb damage can be expected to impact power lines. If it was a couple weeks later, after the leaves had fallen, little damage might occur. The time of year, geography, topography and human development among other factors all impact how a weather event will behave and impact a territory.
Across the globe, meteorologists have seen an increase in abnormally severe weather events, at times in abnormal places. Record breaking floods have hit in Detroit, Michigan and Fort Collins, Colorado in recent years. Earlier this year, tornados struck the outer islands of Louisiana, and winter flooding occurred in Mississippi. Abnormal weather events happening in strange places force utilities to think about preparation for weather events that in the past they did not have to worry about.
In gearing up for this year’s storm season, utilities should start planning for how these factors will impact their specific service areas.
New Forecasting Technology Battles Extreme Weather Events
Even with weather reaching new heights of unpredictability, this does not mean utilities have to fall victim to being unprepared. To be successful and keep workers safe, utilities should be using weather forecasting solutions that go well beyond generally predicting severe weather events before they happen but rather provide actionable decision-support tools that help a utility prepare.
A weather event can generate a different impact to different utilities based on their service area, their distribution network, or even the time of year, as mentioned above. For example, Manhattan has power lines that run underground, so strong winds are not nearly as worrisome. They do however, have to worry about flooding in the sewers, because that is where there power lines are. Different locations have different sensitivities and therefore different weather management strategies to implement. It is no longer enough to simply brace for severe weather, utilities need to factor all the nuances into the equation.
New solutions can provide highly detailed geographical specificity to the weather forecast, including risk factor ratings for various threats. These reports break a utility’s service area down into neighborhoods or regions to provide a more detailed and accurate assessment. One section might have a lot of trees and critical civic infrastructure, a different piece might have the largest city in the state. Each region will have a different forecast based off the individual threat in that region.
Weather risk assessments can also be tailored to the unique asset profile of a specific service region. Some communities are growing and producing more assets to monitor, while some have assets that are getting older which makes them more susceptible to lightning or severe weather damage.
Providing reports with easy to digest probability assessments is an important tool for utilities, as this can be critical for making decisions on how to position crews and equipment before a storm to maximize response effectiveness. This includes whether to call for mutual assistance. The risk of making the call and not needing the crews is wasting significant resources on unnecessary support. The risk of not making the call is being left unprepared for the scale of the outage and leaving customers in the dark, resulting in impacts to revenue and lack of confidence from the customers.
Geographic severity assessments and probability factors allow for utilities to be more confident and effective in their preparation and response to severe weather.
It is absolutely critical for all utilities to be on same page when it comes to extreme severe weather events because if one utility thinks they will get hit (when in reality they are not in the path of the storm) they will keep their crews there to help with any damage that they believe might occur. Miscommunication costs huge amounts of money, as well as wasted manpower, and potentially the loss of life.
Improving Asset Protection
Reliable weather information also comes into play when lightning strikes. While lightning is not an indicator of all types of severe weather, it does have its own potential for damage. Lightning presents a particular challenge for utilities managing assets such as transformers or wind turbines because its specific geographical impact cannot be forecasted, and the damage caused by a strike might be invisible without close inspection of the asset. However, visual inspection of each asset in the storm path is too cost prohibitive.
New weather technology is available to provide utilities with detailed and accurate reports of lightning strikes, specifically analyzing the likelihood that a turbine or transformer within a designated area will be struck by lightning. This allows a utility to better assess damage following a storm or strike and enact a more efficient inspection and repair plan.
In many cases the damage caused could be small in scale, but unaddressed grows into a much bigger problem, causing a utility hundreds of thousands of dollars. Aside from economic cost, lightning detection affects energy output. The more time it takes to locate the asset that was struck, the longer a region is down. Faster maintenance and repairs from more accurate damage assessments help maximize generation output by reducing down time.
By crossing mapped assets with accurate weather data, a catalogue can be generated that accurately assesses the likelihood of a strike, down to a customizable area. If a strike occurred near a transformer or turbine, a report is sent that provides operators with the exact location and how far, in meters, the lightning struck from the asset as well as the strength of the stroke. This list is generated every 24 hours for operator to access and utilize when planning the day’s maintenance.
After the Storm
As the world enters an era of new technology and increasingly severe weather, utilities face evolving challenges that the right weather strategy can help them overcome. By breaking up coverage areas, utilities are able to assess unique weather situations and act ahead of the damage, saving both time and money.
The time for guesswork is over, forecasting tools help with outages caused by severe weather, fire or snow, and prevent expensive asset damage. While severe weather cannot be controlled, utilities can now face them confidently, with a plan already in hand.
About the Author: Jim Foerster is the director of the product management team for the weather division of Schneider Electric. He has responsibility for all of the weather software products offered to the market, as well as the meteorological content in those products. Jim is one of four Certified Consulting Meteorologists with Schneider Electric, one of the most prestigious peer-awarded certifications available in the weather industry. He has a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his spare time, Jim is a professional soccer coach in Bloomington, Minnesota, where he resides.