It’s no surprise that extreme weather events are on the rise, and the unfortunate reality is that damage to critical lifelines and infrastructure is at the core of every disaster. Which means that being able to conduct accurate and rapid damage assessments is more critical than ever. As I reflect on the last 20 years in emergency management from both my FEMA and utility experience, I wanted to offer my thoughts on the status quo and some ways forward as technology continues to play an increasingly vital role in utility response and recovery.

Extreme weather stakes are rising. And more damage demands faster damage assessment procedures…

It’s clear extreme weather events are increasing, in frequency and intensity. Utilities executives know it too, with more than 90% of utility executives surveyed, convinced these events will increase over the next 10 years. However, only 24% believe they are very well-prepared to respond. More extreme weather results in more damage; across critical lifelines, local communities, and other services like telecom, transportation, and healthcare. All these industries and the economy rely on electricity to drive operations and support our communities. Furthermore, the scope of stakeholder expectations for immediate updates has grown significantly over the last decade. Not only do customers expect more transparency, but regulators, public agencies, and investors are also driving demand for more information and heightened pressure for power restoration (fast).

As a customer, I’ve also been on the receiving end while trying to respond to wildfires and hurricanes impacting my own community and having a young family left at home without power. It’s not only frustrating but can also be a life-or-death situation not knowing when your lights are getting turned off. But more on that later!

First up, let’s agree damage assessment is pivotal to everything…

Damage assessment is not an afterthought. It’s the driver of the entire recovery process after any disaster. Why? The extent of the damage and where it is dictates everything that follows: the resources you need, where you put them, and the priority locations. The credibility of your communication is also dependent on the accuracy of damage assessment information. The information passed to key stakeholders (like local government, investors, customers, your C-suite) will drive most of the response and recovery decisions, accuracy matters.

Utilities have made a lot of improvements, but we’re not quite on par with other industries when it comes to applying the most advanced technologies to improve a capability. Sure, we can’t be as frivolous as sending a Tesla into space, but we can certainly do better than carbon copy work orders and spreadsheets. The delta is huge, as are the implications for cost and stakeholder perception. But the good news is there may be better ways forward.

Technology won’t solve everything (yet), but it’s already helping a lot…

Right now, damage assessment is very manual and labour-intensive (wait until the storm passes, send out the crews, report the damage, identify the resources, start to fix it) and prioritization is often driven by a storm chief who is the only resource in the company that knows every circuit and substation. When events are small and geographically contained, that process is still fit for purpose. But it’s a tall order for utilities to keep responding in the same way as extreme weather escalates. Technology is not a miracle cure, but it can certainly help. Here are a few considerations from my experience:

  • Get your asset data organized up front: Even the most basic solutions will rely on accurate data and the ability to export, layer, and integrate with other systems. In practice, this means investing in sound asset management and GIS solutions to get a detailed picture of what assets are where.
  • Integrate and simplify your dashboards: Before we even start talking about analytics, I’m still a big advocate of good situational awareness – even the most advanced solutions out there can’t replace common sense when it comes to being able to clearly see the status of all your operations and make sound decisions.
  • Don’t be afraid of technology: Every time you type something into a search engine- it’s using advanced algorithms to create customized search results. Applying technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to everyday life is no longer the future, it’s a fundamental requirement to remain competitive and relevant. As an industry, we are past due to adopt and adapt AI/ML capabilities for damage assessments.

    Analytics tools can merge data sources to create a picture of vulnerabilities in advance of a storm. For instance: bring together external sources (such as historical data on weather, wind forecasting) with utility-specific information (like asset management data, inspection and maintenance schedules, past damage patterns) to zero in on the locations likely to be hit hardest. Then you can predict where to stage your equipment and move crews ahead of time. And with machine learning added to analytics, you can teach the system and feed it more nuanced data. For instance, we know vegetation management data can also inform higher risk areas for damage or fire vulnerability. Some forward-thinking utilities are even looking at soil moisture content and micro weather stations as a data point to proactively de-energize distribution circuits in high fire risk areas. And it’s paying off.

  • Now you need damage assessment: Bigger weather events hit bigger zones. And covering a huge geographic footprint with crews is only going to get harder. For a macro view of damage, aerial imagery is valuable—e.g., satellite images are often available within a matter of hours and can help validate pre-storm predictions and even provide a macro-level assessment across an entire service territory.

    For the detail, fixed and rotary wing aircraft and drones are increasingly useful when outfitted with the right equipment, particularly in hard-to-reach and unsafe locations. But we’re only scraping the surface as most imagery still needs to get brought back to an office and analysed by an expert. Imagine what happens when we add a layer of analytics and can analyse images from multiple drones simultaneously - and in real time using AI and ML - that’s a game changer.

  • And on restoration itself: Technology can also help accelerate your response. For instance, connect damage assessment information to the asset database. Now you can see in real time there are 10 poles down at these geographic coordinates and know how many poles are located at the closest staging area. Add in data like distance, road closures, existing work-orders and crew assignments. Now you can improve the accuracy of your estimated restoration time, help to inform priorities and evolve your restoration strategy over time, which gives you a better sense of the speed of that restoration, and informs communications (remember those stakeholders).

Looking ahead, the crowd may be useful…

Finally, thinking back to my own experience of my family being stuck without power…what if the public could really help? I know we’re quick to raise the safety flag, but imagine if all employees, first responders and designated volunteers (or even the general public) could augment your AI/ML capabilities by providing you with images in real time…can you take an image, submit it to the utility via a mobile app, automate the analytics which drive the resource requirements and fast-track the response? We’ve all climbed over the safety hurdle of hailing a ride with an app and getting into a car with a total stranger, I’m pretty sure we can figure out how to use an app to update a picture.

As the extreme weather challenges increase, utilities can amplify their use of technology for the future—and protect their people and customers. Contact me to find out more about how.

Dan Stevens

Senior Manager, Resources – Operational Resiliency Lead

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