Global utility execs say increasing severe weather events threaten grid operations

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Research by Accenture has revealed 95 per cent of utility industry executives believe that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions has been a contributing factor to increased extreme weather events that their electricity networks have experienced over the past 10 years. In addition, 90 per cent believe an expected rise in severe weather poses an increased financial risk to their grid businesses.

The study—the sixth edition of Accenture’s Digitally Enabled Grid research—is based on a survey of more than 200 electric utility executives in 28 countries on five continents. Other key findings include:

  • Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of survey respondents said that extreme weather events represent a significant challenge to network operations and safety.
  • 92 per cent said they expect severe weather to increase in the next 10 years.
  • 88 per cent said maintaining network resilience to extreme weather will result in significant increases in network prices for customers.
  • At the same time, only one-quarter (24 per cent) believe that their businesses are very well prepared to deal with the impact of extreme weather, with one in 12 (eight per cent) reporting being poorly prepared.

“With various parts of the world affected by droughts, wildfires, and flooding in addition to the U.S. hurricane season just around the corner, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and impacting the electricity grid,” said Stephanie Jamison, a global industry managing director who leads Accenture’s Utilities business.

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“Greater system flexibility, delivered through digital and emerging technologies, will be critical to optimising grid resilience in a cost-effective and timely manner.

“For example, active management of available network redundancy, distributed generation and energy storage can help maintain power delivery during severe weather events and speed service restoration after network failures.”

Building network resilience

More than nine in 10 respondents (95 per cent) believe that building greater adaptability into the network—such as network reconfiguration, embedded storage, redundancy and voltage management—over the next 10 years will be critical to increasing overall resilience. Further, 93 per cent see system flexibility as the most cost-effective approach to deliver long-term resilience.

In fact, nearly the same number of executives (93 per cent) said that they are testing innovative solutions for grid resilience, including advanced protection systems, vehicle-to-grid technology, automated self-healing grids and drone inspections of damage factors.

However, enabling greater network flexibility remains a challenge. While 95 per cent of executives believe that active management of distributed generation—including solar photovoltaics, wind power and energy storage—will be key to supporting network resilience in the long term, 84 per cent said a lack of information on the location, size, specification and operational state of smaller distributed energy resource installations is affecting resilience in the near term.

In addition, the study found that a lack of industry-wide guidelines and standards is hampering action to increase utilities’ resilience to the effects of severe weather on the grid. Utility executives said their top-ranked weather concerns for network resilience include very high winds (23 per cent), flooding (17 per cent) and winter ice and snowstorms (15 per cent).

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Accenture’s Utilities Lead in Australia & New Zealand Charlie Richardson said, “In the long-term, utilities can promote greater resilience by linking the benefits of major investments to grid-modernisation strategies to convince policymakers, customers and other stakeholders of these benefits.” 

But COVID-19 is increasing the urgency to address resilience, he added, noting, “It is raising new questions such as, in the event of massive catastrophe how do we support the repair crews, feeding and sheltering them while meeting COVID-19 safety needs? What are the best technologies to protect employees’ health on the job, such as temperature scanning, social distancing and air monitoring?”

“The answers will require the industry fully teaming up, but with people and technology, we will get there,” Richardson added.

Research methodology

Accenture’s annual Digitally Enabled Grid research evaluates the implications and opportunities of an increasingly digital grid. For the most-recent research, Accenture surveyed 206 C-suite and senior vice-president-level executives at electric utilities in 28 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The survey was conducted online from November 2019 through January 2020.