Achieving resiliency, reliability and sustainability in the face of climate change and rising customer expectations
Electricity demand in the U.S. is forecasted to grow by 1% annually through 2050, and our reliance on it is booming. When the power goes out, electric vehicles won’t get charged, remote workers can’t log in from home and those relying on medical devices may be put in danger. Disruptions are on the rise, too. According to Wall Street Journal research, in 2000, there were fewer than 24 major power disruptions – in 2020, the number was 180.
Consumers expect that outages, whether due to unforeseen events, sustained mitigation, or repairs, should be rare and as brief as possible. Utilities are observing that customers have roughly a 48-hour tolerance level for outages, even during restoration events after emergencies and natural disasters. The lights need to come on and stay on.
At the same time, customers also increasingly expect utilities to have significant sustainability plans, optimized costs, and a response to climate change – important challenges that must be planned for to limit the impact to our climate.
There are several challenges to meeting these expectations, including the difficulty of quantifying resilience goals (it’s hard to measure something that defies definition), the increased frequency of high-impact events like hurricanes and mega-wildfires and the need to justify resilience and sustainability costs without any clear regulatory guidance.
Combining these seemingly disparate goals may appear unrealistic. However, we find that using resilience, reliability, and renewables in a guiding framework we call “value stacking” can help utilities assess and justify new projects and make noticeable progress toward all three goals.
First, how do we measure resilience?
Resilience is a moving target with no clear definition to date among utilities, regulators, or the public. Reliability, however, has well-accepted metrics, including duration (SAIDI and CAIDI), frequency (SAIFI) and customer (CELID, CEMI and CEMSMI). Editor’s Note: Metrics are defined on page 4 of this PDF.
Without a clear definition or metrics, it’s challenging to know if a utility is resilient enough, so they must engage with regulators and the public to define the term within the service area and operating conditions and context. Utilities need to quantify multiple benefits from resilience and reliability efforts, including socio- and microeconomic impacts, cost to customers per minute of interruption and public safety impacts.
Fortunately, the industry is heading toward some level of consensus specific to high-impact, low-probability events such as hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes.
For example, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has developed one of the most comprehensive and robust fire risk mitigation programs in the industry designed to improve grid resiliency. The utility is developing metrics to determine the resiliency of its power system without Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) related outage events. Creating such metrics is crucial as these “low-probability” events become more probable, e.g., when the West is facing above-average wildfires and the Atlantic seaboard is gearing up for its seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season.
Value stacking: Catching three fish with one worm
When planning and asking for rate increases for new projects or rebuilds or applying for funds through programs like the Building a Better Grid initiative, utilities need to show regulators, funding agencies and the public what is being done, why it’s being done and what benefits the projects will provide. Value stacking via addressing resilience, reliability, and sustainability into as many new projects as possible provides substantial advantages to utilities and customers.
As an example, several recent SDG&E projects have demonstrated the advantages of value stacking, including:
- Replacing an aging 60-year-old substation while adding capacity, which increased reliability and resilience
- Adding a lithium-ion battery storage microgrid at Ramona Air Attack Base to provide backup power to a critical fire-fighting asset
- Converting three diesel-powered microgrids to battery backup in the near future, increasing sustainability
- Obtaining buy-in from regulators for a project to harden transmission lines in the Cleveland National Forest for wildfire mitigation, which increases resilience and – while not directly related to renewable energy – helps with environmental protection
These projects show that achieving all three goals may not always be feasible, but it’s worth evaluating all projects from the value stacking lens, alongside cost considerations. For example, focusing on just one or two goals can lead a utility to fund a project that only targets reliability but doesn’t help resilience long-term.
How upgrades and futureproofing can hit all the marks
With no end in sight for our increasing reliance on technology, futureproofing also should be a main consideration when planning system upgrades. Assets put in the ground now could still be in service in 30 years and working harder than ever.
This means looking to technologies that may still be cutting-edge for many utilities, such as sensors and edge monitoring technology. Sensors, for example, that can monitor grid performance could help a utility now and in the even more-electrified future. Sensors can give utility operators increased awareness of power quality at various points on a circuit, and deploying sensors now avoids the problems and costs of shoe-horning sensors in later. The sensors could also gather historical data for future development of infrastructure analysis.
Projects such as microgrids, storage and aggregated EV2Grid can improve resilience and renewables. A two-way grid helps upgrade for electrification while increasing resiliency, as renewables and vehicle batteries can provide power to homes and the grid during outages.
Putting the pieces together
To address the nexus of resilience, reliability and sustainability, utilities must invest critical resources and analytics along with forward infrastructure strategic planning into creating:
- Integrated resource planning that value stacks and identifies multiple benefit streams for customers and the environment.
- Key Results Driven Metrics through a customer lens, including minimizing outages and outage time experienced.
- Prevention and Proactive metrics that identify pre- and post-resilience investment results of ignition reduction and/or identified problems on lines taken out during Red Flag/Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) outages.
- Electrification benefits and sustainability impacts of grid upgrades/resilience measures, such as Electric Vehicle penetration on circuits/communities and microgrid and distributed energy resource deployment/storage.
There are no shortcuts in planning for tomorrow’s grid, but utilities that value stack reliability, resilience and sustainability with every new project will be better positioned to ease the transition to full electrification for themselves and their customers and achieve cost and spend optimization.
Gregg Edeson is the Utility Reliability and Resiliency Lead at PA Consulting. Wei Du is an Energy and Utilities Expert with PA Consulting. Christopher Bolton is the System Protection Automation and Control Engineering Manager at SDG&E. Monica Garcia is the Reliability Analysis and Reporting Team Lead at SDG&E.