Enhancing Climate Resiliency – 3 Ways Utilities Can Leverage Thermal and Visual Monitoring

Severe weather and environmental damage pose some of the most significant threats to North America’s electrical infrastructure. Major storms, heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and blizzards can all damage equipment, bring down transmission lines, and cause widespread and prolonged power outages.

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of these extreme weather events, utilities must harden the grid and enhance climate resiliency. But as we discussed in a recent article much of the existing electrical infrastructure is aging and obsolete, putting additional pressure on utilities to invest.

Utility-grade thermal and visual monitoring systems are a cost-effective alternative to traditional truck rolls and manual inspections. By reducing maintenance costs, mitigating the risk of catastrophic failure, and providing continuous real-time coverage of remote facilities, utilities can leverage these sensors as part of their larger climate resiliency initiatives.

The Growing Need for Climate Resiliency

As utilities invest in new infrastructure, upgrade and replace aging equipment, and decarbonize electricity generation, they must also harden the grid against severe weather.

Extreme weather events are already causing widespread outages. A recent Deloitte survey found that 51 percent of utilities noticed extreme weather had affected reliability metrics more than usual in the past year.

The data backs up these observations. A report based on US federal data showed that the average number of annual outages more than doubled to 9,656 between 2015 and 2020. The same report also found that, between 2002 and 2021, the US experienced 229 weather events that caused more than $1 billion in damages, up from just 94 between 1980 and 2001.

The situation is similar in Canada, where rising temperatures are having a simultaneous impact on demand. A recent heatwave in British Columbia, for example, resulted in peak demand that was 30 percent greater than normal as consumers switched on air conditioners and other energy-intensive appliances.

Unfortunately, a 2021 report found that one-third of Canada’s core infrastructure was obsolete and not resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Given the severity of the potential threat, it’s no surprise that 78 percent of utility CEOs are concerned about environmental damage related to climate change.

Below are three ways that utility-grade thermal and visual monitoring systems can be deployed to improve maintenance and repairs and enhance the overall resiliency of the grid against severe weather.

1) Monitoring Remote Infrastructure

Thermal and visual sensors can be deployed at critical electrical infrastructure, such as utility substations, to monitor the health and performance of high-value assets. Operations and Maintenance (O&M) teams can then detect potential faults before they grow into more significant failures, reducing the risk of outages and improving the resiliency of the grid. Deployments can be targeted at known problem areas, such as older equipment, facilities with more frequent issues, or areas that are more at risk of severe weather.

Further, as some regions experience less rainfall, utilities must mitigate the risk of wildfires sparked by damaged equipment. Thermal sensors can detect hotspots and alert teams to temperature fluctuations, ensuring issues are repaired before a fire occurs.

2) Inspecting Infrastructure After a Storm

Major weather events not only damage electrical infrastructure, but they can also prevent maintenance crews from travelling to sites and conducting inspections.

Blocked roads, flooding, traffic jams, and other threats can make getting to a remote substation or damaged transmission line difficult and dangerous. And without prior visibility, crews have no way of knowing the condition of the site until they arrive, placing them in potentially dangerous or unsafe environments.

Instead, thermal and visual sensors allow the O&M team to view multiple sites from a single, centralized location after a weather event occurs. With a clear view of what’s happening on the ground, utilities can assess the scope of the damage, order replacement parts and components, and dispatch crews based on the actual condition of the sites.

3) Prioritizing Maintenance and Repairs

It’s likely that infrastructure will be damaged across a wide geographic area following a storm, wildfire, or flood. As a result, it’s often not possible to dispatch crews to resolve every issue at the same time.

In these cases, utilities must respond in a way that gets power up and running for the most customers as fast as possible. With remote monitoring solutions, O&M teams can assess the level of damage and prioritize repairs. Advanced software can help by showing the severity of the damage, the time needed to conduct the repair, and the lead time on any replacement parts or components. With this approach, utilities can allocate scarce technical resources more effectively in the period immediately following severe weather.

Preparing for the Future of Climate Change

Climate change means that severe environmental threats will become more common in the coming decades. Failure to invest in the electrical grid to harden infrastructure and enhance climate resiliency will result in more frequent outages, lower reliability metrics, and regulatory penalties and fines.

Thermal and visual sensors represent only one part of the larger puzzle. But they provide utilities with a cost-effective, easy-to-install, and simple-to-use alternative to traditional truck roles and physical inspections.

By reducing maintenance costs, allocating scarce resources more effectively, and mitigating the risk of catastrophic issues, utilities can be better prepared when severe weather strikes.