For proof that electric utilities have been hardening their systems, consider two recent weather events: Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. While many New Jersey and New York homes and businesses remained dark for weeks after Sandy’s devastation, 1.2 million Florida customers that lost power during Matthew had their lights back on within two days. Of course, these were very different storms, but a look at how utilities have been spending their money the last few years shows the importance these companies are placing on their infrastructure.
Investor-owned utilities have invested billions in their local transmission and distribution systems since 2012—$160.6 billion between 2012 and 2015, according to Edison Electric Institute (EEI) figures. Much of that spending falls into two categories: hardening systems so they can withstand potential impacts, and making systems more resilient so they can be re-energized as quickly as possible when they do go down. Both approaches are critical to minimizing the long-term impact severe weather or other disasters might have on operability.
For Florida Power & Light, the primary electric utility for southern Florida and the state’s Atlantic coast, some hardening efforts have been as basic as replacing wooden poles with stronger concrete models.
In areas where flooding isn’t a threat, transmission and distribution lines can be buried to protect them from wind and falling-tree damage. In New Jersey, leading utility PSE&G has been raising and relocating substations and switching stations above flood levels because 29 of these facilities were washed out during Hurricane Sandy.
Resiliency tactics can mean smart-grid investments in devices such as automatic reclosers that can re-energize circuits thrown offline by a temporary disturbance, such as the brush of a tree branch. Also, networked sensors can provide utilities with data to help quickly reroute power around a downed transformer to minimize the number of customers affected by a localized outage. Microgrids are another means for creating more resilient distribution systems, enabling localized electricity supplies supported by on-site solar panels, generators or other sources to keep operating, even when the larger system is dark.
Hartford, Conn., utility Eversource is in the middle of a $13 million effort to install 200 “smart” switches across its home state by 2017. This automated equipment is part of a plan to create a “self-healing” grid, in which sensors and activators can correct outages in as quickly as a minute with no human assistance. The company has stated the investment is anticipated to reduce the number of outages by 30–50 percent. A similar system was put into service in PPL Electric Utilities’ Pennsylvania service territory in 2016 and proved its value during a round of thunderstorms in which thousands of darkened customers had service restored in less than two minutes.
Recognizing that weather crises are indifferent to service-territory borders, utilities also are looking at regional approaches to improving resiliency. Five utilities in the Southeast—including Southern Co., Louisville Gas & Electric, Kentucky Utilities Co., PPL and the Tennessee Valley Authority—announced a partnership in November to identify spare transformers and other transmission equipment each company might have available that could be purchased by partners in the wake of physical disruption. The companies hope to expand the effort to include other utilities in the region.
This new emphasis on hardening and resiliency improvement actually comes at a good time for electric utilities. Many systems are already in need of upgrading, with average-age estimates for transformers now topping 40 years. With electricity demand growth slowing, companies are looking for new ways to provide value to customers beyond simply building new plants. Reducing outages, both in number and duration, is a big plus for customers who might be using less electricity but, in this age of constant connectivity, are more reliant on that power than ever before.
State-level regulators also are looking favorably at rate-base-funded investments in hardening and resiliency upgrades, especially as the frequency and severity of damaging weather events has increased in recent years. More utilities are getting the go-ahead to charge customers’ bills for the improvements.
Electrical professionals that install this new, smarter equipment can benefit from this emphasis on boosting reliability, as significant expenditures are expected to continue for the next several years. EEI forecasts U.S. electric-utility infrastructure spending will have totaled $52.8 in 2016, once the bills are tallied.
“From Growth to Modernization: The Changing Capital Focus of the U.S. Utility Sector,” a 2016 report from the consulting firm Deloitte, anticipates similar levels of spending in 2017 and 2018. The continuing opportunities in utility infrastructure work could make catching up on the latest smart-grid technologies an even smarter move for ECs seeking to grow their bottom lines.