A great deal of energy infrastructure has failed worldwide when confronted with extreme weather events due to the unpreparedness of many countries for the effects of storms, wildfires, flooding and other severe weather. With these types of disasters expected to happen more often, energy companies are exploring potential ways to weatherproof their infrastructure to protect it and keep people with power in critical moments.
For several years, people have criticised the poor state of U.S. energy infrastructure. A lack of funding and cohesion across states has meant that much energy infrastructure in the country has gone untouched for decades. But as more states face severe weather events, such as wildfires in California, tropical storms in Florida and big freezes in Texas, the failures of this ageing infrastructure are becoming ever more apparent. This is not the only country that is facing these issues, but it is one place where several actors are looking for ways to weatherproof critical energy infrastructure to make it safer and provide people with the energy they desperately need during times of crisis.
Wildfires have destroyed vast areas of land in recent years, taking with them wildlife, houses and businesses. The recent wildfires in Maui led to the destruction of at least 2,207 buildings and caused $5.5 billion in damage. The largest utility in the U.S., Pacific Gas and Electric is now aiming to move 10,000 miles of power lines in fire-prone areas underground, which will significantly reduce the risk of ignition. Jamie Martin, the company’s vice president of undergrounding, explained, “We’re coming off of a historic drought, and those conditions are materially different than the conditions that we saw just 10 short years ago. And so now is absolutely the right time to be taking bold, decisive action with regard to the grid safety.”
Pacific has dealt with the repercussions of wildfires in recent years, with its infrastructure being at the centre of many safety discussions. In 2018, its equipment sparked a fire in the town of Paradise, California, which killed 85 people. This led PG&E to declare bankruptcy, which it managed to come out of in 2020. But in 2021, the firm’s equipment started another major fire, driving it to discuss alternative weatherproofing options for its lines. In 2023, PG&E has undergrounded 350 miles of power lines, bringing the total to 600 miles of lines shifted underground since 2021.
Installing power lines underground rather than overhead can reduce the risk of ignition by as much as 98 percent. However, this is no easy feat due to the extremely high cost of undergrounding activities. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, the cost of undergrounding just one mile of line can cost between $1.85 million and $6.1 million, meaning the cost of achieving PG&E’s aim would stand at tens of billions. And funding for the project will be shifted to the consumers, who have already faced extremely steep utility bills in the last year.
Outside of the U.S., several other countries also battle with wildfires, seen in places like Australia and Southern Europe. If successful, this project could be used as a blueprint for other countries to follow. Many European cities already bury their power lines underground due to the density of cities making it unsafe and impractical to have them overhead. However, just 18 percent of distribution lines in the U.S. are currently underground.
As well as moving power lines underground to prevent wildfires, the U.S. also faces several other types of extreme weather events that must be considered when building new energy infrastructure and making improvements to the existing network. Technologies such as the remote control of operations from control centres and automatic shut-offs can be vital to the safety and function of infrastructure. The use of a delayed auto reclose (DAR) system, which works to trip a circuit in the case of a fault, can help shut off power during a storm and bring the power back online when it is safe. During Storm Arwen in November 2021, this system tripped 45 National Grid circuits to protect the infrastructure from damage.
In Iceland, Laki Power, the Icelandic national power company, is using €2.1 million in funding to integrate climate technology with predictive capabilities to protect power grids into its systems. The company focuses on critical locations, using cameras, sensors, and solar panels to respond to weather events. They prioritise power grid conditions like ice on power lines, wildfires and surface contamination, which can frequently cause power outages and permanent damage. Laki uses innovative monitoring technologies to generate an analytics report and respond appropriately to any risk.
As severe weather events become more frequent and severe, energy companies must prepare for the worst. The weatherproofing of energy infrastructure could help prevent disaster, ensure that people have access to power during the most critical moments and it could also prevent massive repair costs. PG&E’s aim to underground its power lines is just the start, with several companies worldwide exploring innovative ways to strengthen energy infrastructure systems and ensure they continue working following a natural disaster or severe weather event. However, much more needs to be done to accelerate the rollout of these technologies and power lines underground to ensure that people are protected in vulnerable situations and to prevent potential disasters.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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