Maggie Alexander, Smart Wires

Combatting natural disaster impacts with advanced transmission technologies

Over the past two months, Hurricane Florence ravaged the East Coast followed shortly by Hurricane Michael, causing widespread evacuations and leaving millions of people without power for an extended period of time. At the same time on the West Coast, wild fires ripped through California, Colorado and Montana – burning tens of thousands of acres and leaving many households without power. These natural disaster events and the many we will face in the future mean that our electric grid is increasingly vulnerable.

As climate change continues to intensify weather patterns, natural disasters (such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, snow storms, and tornados) are becoming more frequent and more intense. Utilities are on the front lines – expected to maintain safety and reliability for their customers and workforce, alike. Keeping the lights on – or restoring power as quickly as possible in the event of an outage – requires extensive planning, tireless work and unending commitment.

Power providers are rethinking disaster management, especially when it comes to prevention, planning and adaptation measures. In California, recently passed legislation (SB 901) aimed to address wildfires, including key measures to move California toward better wildfire preparedness, response and resiliency. The law includes language to address a wide range of factors that contribute to extreme fire threat in California and mandates utilities to develop a wildfire preparation plan, including the tools and technologies they will utilize to address wildfire-related risks and impacts.

This all points to the conclusion that, in the face of increasingly destructive natural disasters, it is critical for utilities to have a variety of tools and resources available to keep the grid safe, resilient and reliable. Advanced transmission technologies, such as Dynamic Line Ratings (DLR), Topology Optimization and Advanced Power Flow Control, are highly valuable in these circumstances and belong in utilities’ toolkits. Each of these technologies now have mobile forms, which can be re-located and re-deployed quickly which makes them fundamentally different animals from traditional solutions that go through multi-year planning cycles.

Advanced power flow control pushes or pulls power away from overloaded lines and onto underutilized corridors within the existing transmission network and is quickly deployed, can scale to meet the size of the need, and is easily redeployed to new parts of the grid when no longer needed in the original location. Mobile platforms can be deployed in 8 hours. This mitigates numerous wildfire-related risks, such as reducing power flows in anticipation of hot, dry conditions; minimizing the impact of forced outages by limiting the load shed to areas requiring shutdowns for safety reasons; and increasing the speed of restoration efforts by quickly connecting customers and enabling system reconfigurations. These are just a few examples of the benefits that advanced transmission technologies can provide to address the negative impacts of natural disasters on the grid.

DLR is another advantageous technology that allows utilities to operate lines at higher power capacities based on actual weather conditions. While DLR technology offers utilities many economic benefits under normal operations, it also provides strong grid resilience benefits. During long-term substation or transmission line outage scenarios, DLR can enhance recovery by maximizing the utilization of surviving transmission assets. DLR may also be part of a system to limit or prevent cascade line outages and the potential system collapse such scenarios present.

Another valuable technology utilities to deploy is Topology optimization. Topology optimization acts as a “Waze” for grid operators, identifying grid reconfigurations to route power flow around overloaded transmission elements using alternative, underutilized routes. The reconfigurations are implemented through switching on/off existing high voltage circuit breakers, which can be done remotely and rapidly from control centers. Topology optimization has been used to successfully mitigate overloads during severe winter storms, heat waves, wildfires and other natural disaster conditions. Traditionally, operators identify reconfigurations based on their experience and knowledge of the system—a challenging task considering the grid complexity. With topology optimization, the technology performs the identification automatically and quickly, enabling operators to better utilize the grid.

Beyond natural disaster support, advanced transmission technologies can help utilities optimize their existing transmission grid by allowing hidden transmission capacity to be identified and utilized. Widespread deployment of these technologies could reduce the cost of electricity to consumers by as much as $2 billion per year while improving reliability and resiliency.

There are numerous reasons why advanced transmission technologies belong in every utility’s toolkit, including as utilities plan for, address in real-time and recover from natural disaster events. As the West Coast wildfires continue to burn, and as the East Coast braces itself for a long hurricane season, the time is now for utilities to ensure they are familiar with and ready to deploy advanced transmission technologies.

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Maggie Alexander is Director of the Western Region at Smart Wires, a modular, scalable, redeployable power flow control technology company based in Northern California.