As extreme weather events increase, utilities must become truly resilient, not just reliable. And system flexibility will be at the core, with localized solutions such as microgrids as part of the answer. Here are some practical reflections on driving up system flexibility for the future.

The case for resilience has more than been made

Extreme weather events are growing in scale and severity, and utility leaders know it. As they move from reliability to resilience to combat this challenge, system flexibility will be crucial. In my part of the world, California wildfires, in particular, have accelerated the conversation about how to be resilient against an ever-increasing threat. I’ve been close to practitioners on the front line: in a former life, I oversaw a utility’s fire science and climate adaptation function and witnessed the scale of the problem. Of course, extreme weather goes beyond fire—with hurricanes, storms and all of the other events we’re now dealing with in a more intense way.

So in these times of heightened pressure, how can utilities respond?

Walking a tightrope between protecting and powering

The wind is roaring, it’s hot and dry—think desert winds, Santa Ana conditions. As the utility, you have to walk that fine line of determining: Is the risk high enough right now to shut down the system? How will the risk change in the coming hours? If wires come down, will they start a fire, and what are the risks to life and liability? It’s a tough call. But history proves that making these decisions at the right time can save lives, and failing to act is not an option.

But public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) are a big deal to customers, and in some cases, we’re talking about a million customers at a time. Customer and business outrage are the norm and sometimes the shutoff comes too late to mitigate the fire. But if you can shut down while continuing to energize high-priority locations, you are much closer to protecting and powering at the same time.

Enter system flexibility

Our research shows increased system flexibility is one of utility executives’ highest priorities for resilience over the next 10 years. If it’s so important, how do you go about doing it?

The approach must be multi-faceted. Much of it involves engineering in resilience, including system hardening, using covered conductors, adding sensors and other smart devices on the lines, and analyzing meteorological data to help predict impacts. But for a step change, you need system-flexible assets. And increasingly, localized energy sources have a role to play, particularly in PSPS situations. For instance, when a microgrid is available, utilities can look to shut off rural or higher risk locations but maintain power to small downtown areas or critical loads, and therefore businesses, in general, and services for the public. It’s a way to energize a portion of the grid while protecting the most fire-vulnerable locations, and it minimizes the impact on customers and the public at large.

Extending this example: utilities are increasingly putting the infrastructure in place to power strategically during a PSPS event. For instance, identifying key community resources to energize (such as schools or community centers) and siting a small portable generator for now, and eventually, energy storage. All the time, greener options are emerging. Think of the solar farm charging the battery, which can then energize key portions of the locality when needed.

Meanwhile, the regulatory context is supportive: The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), for one, is promoting and accelerating resiliency solutions for high fire-risk areas. And utilities are getting the go-ahead to develop infrastructure specific to microgrid projects.

Micro control for a more nuanced approach to power

When you can control a microgrid, you can be much more nuanced about power in a crisis. That has huge advantages in terms of protecting vulnerable people and critical services. In the United States, wildfires often hit disadvantaged communities disproportionately. And of course, hospitals and other services for vulnerable communities must be front and center (consider home-based oxygen or dialysis needing steady power).

The forward-thinking utility is considering: How can we site microgrids and other self-contained back-up to protect the highest-risk customers and reduce inequalities in times of extreme weather? They’re conducting proactive customer outreach before the next crisis hits to understand local areas of need, to inform their planning. And solutions are becoming more creative all the time—like incorporating electric vehicles as emergency electricity sources for housing (vehicle to grid), or even electric school buses to energize community resource centers at schools.

Utilities will need to keep being creative about resilience as conditions change. But system flexibility is key to managing for the future, and technology can help. Contact me to find out more about how.

Katherine Speirs

Principal Director – North America West Utilities

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