How Extreme Weather Threatens Utility Storm Response

During the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana and Mississippi were struck by another historic storm.

With sustained winds clocking in at 150 mph, Hurricane Ida knocked out all eight of New Orleans’s transmission lines and caused “catastrophic” damage to the grid - the fifth strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. mainland.

Underscored by the destructive force of Hurricane Ida in 2021 and Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020, extreme weather threatens the grid and a utility’s storm response.

Tropical storms are growing more frequent and severe, and power restoration will become significantly more challenging unless utilities pursue urgent innovation.

If utilities don’t act now to transform storm response, they risk customers’ lives and harsh regulatory action.

The Impact of Extreme Weather on Electric Utilities

From drought to flooding, deep freezes to wildfires, extreme weather takes many forms and presents a significant threat to utilities across the entire U.S.

To make matters worse, extreme weather is no longer bound by a single season.

Wildfires are now a year-round risk along the West Coast, and Texas not only prepares for the strain of high summer temperatures but the risk of a severe winter storm, like February’s Winter Storm Uri.

Plus, the frequency and severity of these events is increasing. Since 2015, the U.S. has faced an average of 15 billion-dollar disasters every year, over triple the annual average between 1980 and 2000.

And an August report by the U.N. confirmed a sobering fact: extreme weather is only going to get worse.

A utility crew repairing a power line after a winter storm

Severe weather threatens grid reliability & resilience

A changing climate has ripple effects along the entire energy supply chain.

Generators may be shut down by cold, as in Texas in early 2021. While the opposite - high temperatures - strain the grid due to increased demand, as customers run air conditioners to survive the heat.

Transmission lines - or in the case of Hurricane Ida, an entire transmission tower - can be knocked down during a tropical storm. While power lines have sparked some of California’s largest, most destructive, and deadliest fires due to dry conditions.

Other assets like distribution lines and poles are also often damaged during a storm due to significant winds, flooding, or lightning.

To mitigate these diverse risks, utilities are investing billions of dollars in grid hardening, modernization, vegetation management, inspections and maintenance, and - significantly - storm response.

Effective storm response is vital

Of the 22 billion dollar weather and climate disasters in 2020, seven were tropical cyclones, three were tornadoes, and ten involved hail, thunder, or winter storms.

When extreme weather causes outages, utilities need an effective storm response to clear roads, repair infrastructure, restore power, and protect customers.

However, as recent storms have illustrated, this is easier said than done, and storm response remains a key opportunity for innovation and investment.

To understand the immense logistical challenges in storm response and where utilities can innovate, it’s illustrative to consider a past historical storm: reviewing what happened, what went well, and what could have been improved.

Case Study: Tropical Storm Isaias & Slow Storm Recovery

On August 4, 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias struck New York.

Long Island measured 70-85 mph winds, and damage stretched throughout Eastern New York. In total, 1.5 million customers experienced power outages over the course of the storm.

Eight days later, on August 12, power had finally been restored to all customers. 

In the aftermath, Governor Cuomo ordered an immediate investigation into New York’s major utilities. The Public Service Commission (PSC) published an interim investigation report on November 19, detailing over 30 violations for each utility’s storm response. The potential penalties totaled $137.3 million.

When a final decision was reached, these utilities paid over $110 million in penalties.

The recovery after Isaias was slow, underscoring the risks posed by poor storm response and highlighting key challenges to overcome.

Risks posed by power outages and infrastructure damage

From hospitals to water pumps, almost everything in a modern city depends on electricity. An outage isn’t merely an inconvenience for customers - it can be life threatening.

  • Vulnerable customers, especially those with medical devices, rely on electricity to survive
  • Downed power lines threaten pedestrians and complicate road clearing necessary for first responder vehicles
  • Critical facilities - like hospitals - can’t or shouldn’t remain on generators
  • Citizens lose access to work and wages, while companies lose business or experience delays in production
  • Food, medicine, and other products are spoiled without refrigeration
  • Customers rely on air conditioning or heating to survive extreme temperatures and avoid hypothermia or heat stroke
  • Other vital utilities, including natural gas and water, depend on power to function and will experience disruption if they lack adequate generation

The consequences of an outage are severe, so utilities are held accountable for a slow response.

Like Governor Cuomo’s action following Isaias, the New Orleans City Council voted recently to launch an investigation into their major utility’s storm response in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

Ida damaged or destroyed 30,000 utility poles and affected nearly 1 million customers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Over 300,000 customers remained without power nine days after the storm, suffering in sweltering heat. At least 10 died due to the high temperatures.

As hurricanes grow more extreme, it’s inevitable Isaias and Ida will be followed by other severe storms. If utilities don’t make significant investments in infrastructure and operations, these storms will continue to hobble the grid, endanger customers, and spark investigations.

To prevent future tragedy and regulatory action, it’s imperative utilities across the U.S. develop an efficient storm response.

That said, the emergency response plan violations during Tropical Storm Isaias illuminate how challenging this can be.

Streamlined field operations are central to effective storm response

Considering the scope of the problem, there’s no easy solution.

Local leaders in New York, for instance, have made recommendations that run the gamut from improved forecasting models to a transformed municipal liaison program.

However, a through line does exist in several of the violations. In essence, New York utilities’ storm response struggled because of insufficient resources, inaccurate information, and poor communication.

At the heart of this crisis was a disconnect between field teams, command centers, and other stakeholders. With this in mind, a key opportunity for innovation in storm response is field operations.

Streamlining field operations can improve…

  • Organizational standup, site staging, and onboarding
  • Damage assessments and ETRs
  • Road clearing efforts
  • Field crew coordination and power restoration
  • Field visibility for municipalities
  • The accuracy of information reaching customers and government stakeholders

Innovations in the field address many of the major challenges utilities faced during Isaias.

3 Major Challenges in Storm Response

Every utility has a commission-approved emergency response plan that outlines how they’ll mobilize and respond effectively in the event of an emergency.

And if a utility doesn’t follow this plan, they risk regulatory action. This is what happened in New York and Connecticut.

Investigations in New York and Connecticut found utilities struggled in several key areas during Tropical Storm Isaias:

  • Forecasting and classifying the storm
  • Pre-staging adequate resources
  • Communicating with customers and government stakeholders
  • Managing their municipal liaison programs
  • Collaborating in road clearing efforts
  • Coordinating field crews

Significantly, these violations span all of storm response.

Not only do utilities face extensive and logistically complex operations, but every step in the process is vital and a single violation - like poor customer communication or delayed road clearing - directly risks lives.

And a failure in one area has ripple effects: a poor weather forecast leads a utility to misjudge the severity of a storm and pre-stage insufficient resources, which hobbles the actual response.

Without effective tools for data collection and sharing, field teams struggle to effectively coordinate and collaborate. To improve field operations, utilities must overcome the following challenges:

1. Establishing a single source of truth

Establishing a single source of truth during an event is essential in storm response. 

There are a considerable number of stakeholders, and it’s imperative everyone gets the information they need. For the very same reason, though, establishing one source of truth can be quite challenging.

To illustrate, a single downed utility pole may require coordination between…

  • Municipal crews, who report the blocked road, remove debris, or assist in road clearing
  • A municipal liaison, who conveys information between the municipality and the utility
  • A utility, which de-energizes the lines, clears lines from the road, makes repairs, and switches on the power
  • A telecom company, another potential owner of downed equipment 

Utilities are often also managing mutual aid crews and contractors, who may be unfamiliar with the utility’s area, infrastructure, and procedures.

And, the stakes are high.

If a utility doesn’t communicate and coordinate effectively with a municipality, municipal crews may sit around for hours, waiting for a utility’s crews - unable to work until they know the lines are de-energized. 

Ineffective road clearing endangers a community by preventing emergency vehicle access, and slows the overall power restoration by wasting crew resources.

With so many stakeholders involved in storm response, utilities need a single source of truth, where agencies can share a real-time operating picture, partner in tracking teams and resources, and accelerate damage assessments.

2. Manual processes and dispersed assets

Data in the field - managed between so many teams - needs an efficient path to the utility command center, government stakeholders, and - ultimately - customers.

In the past, teams relied only on radios, cell phones, paper maps, and whiteboards to coordinate mutual aid, manage incidents, and receive assignments. Field crews contacted a command center to receive information and manually updated their own records.

These manual processes resulted in unintelligible records, duplicate entries, inaccurate maps, and stale information. And frankly, they were very slow.

Utilities need a field operations solution that’s cloud-based and mobile-friendly, with offline capabilities along with automatic syncing to promote real-time and accurate information.

There’s been progress: some utilities have equipped teams with software and tablets for improved data sharing and work management.

But there remain further opportunities for improved data visualization and collection:

Aerial surveys & satellite imagery

Drones, LiDAR, and satellites can help assess damage in unreachable or unsafe areas while also reviewing geographically dispersed assets more efficiently than ground crews.

This data not only helps command centers assign crews more effectively, but - when provided to a field team on a mobile device - supports crews navigating potentially unfamiliar surroundings.

Automated data feeds

Innovative software can listen to automated feeds - e.g., social media, next generation 911, fire and police - and import the data into a field app before automatically creating an incident and dispatching crews.

Leveraging the precision of maps and GIS:

Maps are “the most power situational awareness medium out there.”

If field teams are equipped with satellite imagery, GPS, and a live map on their devices, they’ll be able to access crucial asset information, view and geo-tag data to existing infrastructure, and benefit from location-based insights. Likewise, command centers will be able to better track crews and monitor incidents.

In short, providing each team member with a command center in the palm of their hand - the information they need, when they need it - empowers unparalleled visibility into the field and transforms storm response.

3. Scalability and Mutual Aid

According to the Edison Electric Institute, a utility should be able to “run smoothly whether there are 5,000, 50,000, or 500,000 customer outages.”

Digitizing manual processes, centralizing event staging and infrastructure information, and tracking equipment and other resources on a single platform goes a long way in bolstering scalability.

However, managing contractors and mutual aid presents a special challenge.

These outside workers may be unfamiliar with the utility’s region, infrastructure, and processes. Additionally, they need support finding their lodging, food, and laydown yards.

After a 16-hour day navigating high-stress repairs and hazardous environments, these teams may find themselves sleeping in their trucks, unsure where to find lodging.

It’s vital a field operations solution minimizes this stress with a user-friendly interface, rapid onboarding, intuitive data capture, easy in-app communication, and everything a worker needs to know - work assignment, lodging, food, equipment - marked clearly on a map.

If workers are empowered with a one-stop shop for everything they need, operations will run smoother, no matter the scale of the response.

And ultimately, with improved field visibility, utilities can expedite storm response, keep communities safe, and avoid regulatory action.

5 Keys to Successful Storm Response Innovation

Understandably, utilities have been historically risk-averse.

Utility providers manage a critical resource, operate under strict oversight, and must justify investments to regulators and - ultimately - customers.

And of course, any new investment or innovation is a risk.

However, the 21st century has changed the equation.

With the rise of extreme weather and digital transformation, the status quo is no longer tenable, and tangible innovation is now much less risky than sticking with outdated tech and processes.

So, how do you get started innovating storm response?

1. Speak early and often with regulators

Begin discussions on the need for investments in these platforms and capabilities. Draw on the support of municipalities interested in field operations software.

2. GIS data clean up

Whether it is an in-house system or a partnership, GIS data integrity and compatibility is a central concern if you are to leverage its power in the field.

3. Start small, think big

Target individual use cases that demonstrate solving immediate regulatory actions, while constantly innovating your vision. A key area may be improving municipal road clearing efforts, for instance, considering recent penalties following Isaias.

4. Consider partnering with other utilities at the regional level

Share costs, innovate, and reduce risk together. This may involve further integrating company emergency response plans, standardizing data, or ensuring system and crew interoperability.

5. Hire the “right” staff

New skills are required to implement and support interoperable emergency response platforms, which is costly, but the long-term benefits include having an organization that can effectively respond to single or multi-agency emergency response scenarios.

Transform your storm response

Unearth's OnePlace can help you prepare for severe weather and mitigate risk. Discover where OnePlace can support your teams:

1. Emergency Response

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2. Vegetation Management

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