Utility systems have come under attack from storms, trees, squirrels, fires and firearms.
Last year was particularly bad for outages with wildfires in California and a trio of hurricanes that racked up record damage in Texas, the Southeast and Puerto Rico.
Utilities are taking measures to address the threats, but the number of outages has been slowly creeping up, as have the number of people affected by outages.
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SOURCE: Eaton’s Blackout Tracker
When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast on Aug. 25, 2017, it left about 280,000 people without electricity. The storm took out six 345 kV transmission lines, 91 138 kV and 138 69 kV circuits, and also knocked out about 10,000 MW of generation, according to a report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
When Hurricane Irma hit Florida on Sept. 10, it affected customers in all 35 counties that Florida Power & Light serves, a total of 4.4 million of the utility’s nearly 5 million customers. Miami-Dade County was hit hardest. At one point, more than 815,000 people, or 80% of FPL accounts in the county, were without power. In Palm Beach County about 70% of accounts lost power. And in Broward County about 68% of accounts experienced outages.
Last year's storms spurred several utilities to strengthen their grids, but investment in grid hardening efforts have been on the rise for well over a decade, spurred by events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which inundated the Eastern Seaboard.
That is seen in the rising levels of utility investments in transmission assets, as reflected in an EIA Today in Energy article earlier this year. Transmission spending has increased steadily as utilities have invested building, upgrading, and replacing poles, fixtures, and overhead lines. In 2016, total transmission expenditures by utilities reached $21 billion, according to Ventyx Velocity Suite data assembled by the Energy Information Administration.
Wooden poles and buried lines
FPL has spent more than $3 billion since 2006 on grid hardening measures, spokesman Bill Orlove told Utility Dive. Every eight years FPL inspects all of its 1.2 million utility poles and replaces those that do not meet strength standards, he said.
Areas closer to the expected hurricane paths, such as Palm Beach, are replaced with concrete poles. Areas further north are replaced with wooden poles. Power lines are also replaced and spans between poles are shortened. FPL has also strengthened more than 860 main power lines and intends to strengthen all its main power lines over the next five to seven years.
So far, those efforts appear to have paid off. When Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in 2005, more than 12,400 of FPL’s power line poles were damaged. In Irma, that number was down to 4,600.
"During Irma we saw those investments pay off by shaving days off our restoration times," Orlove said. One day after Irma hit, FPL had restored power to half its customers. During Wilma that took five days, he said.
In February, FPL filed with the state's Public Service Commission for approval of a pilot program that would bury more lateral power lines. About 40% of FPL's lines are already underground, and they held up during Irma, said Orlove.
During Irma, 69% of hardened, overhead main powerlines and 82% percent of non-hardened main powerlines experienced outages, while only 19% of underground main lines lost power.
Because the program is in the approval process, no locations have been selected and the cost has not been determined, Orlove said.
Entergy Texas has been working on grid hardening measures since 2007. The utility uses concrete or steel for all new poles and for the wooden poles that need replacement. It is also converting all interstate crossing from wood to concrete or steel.
On its distribution system, Entergy Texas is using taller, 45-foot, poles for all trunk feeders, putting them further out of the reach of falling trees.
In the wake of Harvey, Entergy Texas has been examining the need for "additional flood mitigation efforts at substations and other equipment, determining whether to raise or relocate equipment or add retaining walls," spokesperson Kacee Kirschvink told Utility Dive via email. According to her, the utility has also reassessed the availability of spare transformers and mobile substation equipment if they are needed and is exploring the acquisition of additional mobile substations for its entire system and the elevation of control houses in five substations that flooded.
In addition, Entergy Texas is evaluating flood mitigation measures for more vulnerable substations, as well as all new substations. "This could result in the substation equipment being raised or newly installed substations installed up to the 500-year flood elevation," Kirschvink said.
Like other utilities in the Northeast, Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey took its cue from the widespread damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. To be better prepared for storms like Sandy, PSE&G is re-wiring its local power system to create what it calls "the electric infrastructure of the future." The utility is replacing or supplementing its 50-plus-year-old 26 kV lines with 69 kV lines throughout the state.
Those projects are being done either within existing substations and switching stations or through the construction of new stations. In addition, the higher capacity lines will be carried on taller, sturdier replacement poles along existing routes.
PSE&G has already raised or relocated 29 substations that were damaged by water in recent storms, Ron Wharton, senior director of PSE&G’s electric system operations center, told Utility Dive. The utility is also deploying smart grid technologies to increase its ability to monitor its system and respond quickly to outages.
Storms may inflict the most damage to the grid, but they are not the only threat. Recent years have also seen the rise of physical threats.
In April 2013, the Metcalf substation in California was attacked in an early morning raid that knocked out 17 transformers. The attackers cut underground communications cables, eluded security cameras and fired on the substation with high powered rifles before slipping away.
No one was hurt, and Pacific Gas & Electric rerouted the electricity from the damaged station, but the attack caused $15 million in damages. No suspects have been named and the motive is not known.
The Metcalf attack served as a wakeup call to the vulnerability of the grid, but the risk of physical attacks was not unknown. The vulnerability of the grid, particularly of high-voltage transformers at substations, was spelled out in a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences that was declassified in 2012.
About 90% of the electricity consumed in the United States flows through extra high voltage transformers. And, as the NAS report noted, those transformers are particularly vulnerable because they are "very large, difficult to move, often custom-built, and difficult to replace." Also, most transformers are no longer made in the United States, so delivery time for replacements could take months or even years.
One of the responses to the threat of transformer attacks was the RecX program created by Department of Homeland Security in cooperation with the Electric Power Research Institute. The program developed and demonstrated a high voltage recovery transformer that the agency says can cut recovery time by 75% or more.
Another group, Grid Assurance, which was launched in 2016 with the goal of developing a more cost effective means of procuring spare equipment collaboratively. The founding partners include American Electric Power, BHE U.S. Transmission (Berkshire Hathaway Energy), Duke Energy, Edison Transmission, Eversource Energy, and Great Plains Energy.
Grid Assurance will maintain an inventory of spare transmission equipment that is ready for rapid deployment to any of its subscribers in case of an emergency. The equipment is kept at secret, secure locations around the country.
In addition, a private company, Wattstock, created a Transformer Recovery Inventory Program (TRIP), in an effort to offer more transparent pricing and terms with better coverage, service, and performance.
The terrorist attacks also sparked the issuance of CIP-014 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which in coordination with the North American Electric Reliability Corp. standards, calls for heightened measures to thwart terrorist attacks.
In Pennsylvania, utilities have taken a number of measures to increase security, Gladys Brown, chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the new chairman of the critical infrastructure committee at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, told Utility Dive. Especially at larger utilities, they have put in place more secure fencing — sometimes as part of landscape — such as barbed wire or blockades, alarm systems and security systems, and 24 hour security personnel.
Wharton said PSE&G has hardened some of its stations with measures such as increasing stand-off distances and enhancing locks but, like other utility executives, he declined to go into detail for security reasons.
At the national level, Brown says the focus on physical threats is evolving into a focus on cyber attacks. In general, though, Brown noted "we are having conversations across the board" about the all forms of physical threats.