By Charlie Richardson, Accenture’s Utilities Lead in Australia & New Zealand, and Tony Histon, Transmission & Distribution Lead, Accenture Asia-Pacific, Middle East & Africa
The devastating east coast bushfires of last summer, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic are among recent examples of increased extreme events ravaging Australian communities and placing increased pressure on utility companies to respond with greater network resilience and flexibility.
With the severity and frequency of extreme events on the rise, recent Accenture research has revealed alarming findings – only a quarter of utility executives believe their organisation is well prepared to deal with the operational and financial challenges that arise from such catastrophic events.
For years utilities have focused on grid reliability, however this siloed approach is no longer viable to survive the rising incidence of extreme events.
Instead, utilities must augment their focus towards building greater resilience. Beyond extreme weather events, cyber attacks on the energy grid and, as seen in recent months, global pandemics, are further challenging utilities’ existing strategies to deal with the fallout of such events.
Australian utility providers must prioritise engineering resiliency, or else come face to face with devastating consequences.
A new threat landscape
Multi-disaster events such as weather and cyber attacks are becoming more frequent and severe, increasing the scale of outages and hampering restoration efforts.
Accenture’s recent survey revealed 92 per cent of utilities executives expect extreme events to increase and worsen over the next decade.
Recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have added additional levels of complexity, increasing the risks posed to providing safe and reliable power to customers and essential services and businesses.
Utilities are also facing new requirements and expectations in the pursuit of green energy, with the proliferation of distributed energy such as solar and wind the catalyst for changes to traditional distribution systems.
Not only that, utilities are also battling evolving regulatory changes which are expanding the scope of many utilities’ responsibilities, while also trying to maintain insurance and financing at competitive rates.
To top it off, with the increasingly steep costs of maintaining aged transmission and distribution assets, utilities are reaching a critical breaking point only expected to worsen without the right course of action.
Extreme events are now a permanent fixture of the utility landscape and so companies must respond in new ways.
Making the shift from reliability to resiliency
Historically, most utility companies have focused on ensuring reliability by planning for anticipated fault scenarios in order to minimise the frequency and duration of outages.
The widespread issues resulting from natural disasters and cyber attacks have often been considered infrequent anomalies, yet Accenture’s research shows these anomalies are now a repeated occurrence.
Utility operators must therefore design and operate for resilience. This means being able to maintain sustainable operations and deliver effective service under the threat of more frequent and damaging events – from natural disasters to cyber attacks and everything else in between.
This requires a definitive shift from developing reliability tactics, to developing a strategy for addressing wider issues and frameworks needed to support resilience.
How can utilities achieve this paradigm shift? It must start from the very top. At the C-level, executives must take responsibility for developing a strategy focused on resilience.
Once the foundations are in place this must be implemented across all levels of the organisation, embedded within all processes, structures and governance.
Regular dialogue with internal and external stakeholders is then paramount in keeping everyone informed and engaged as the strategy evolves to meet external challenges.
For example, partnering with meteorological experts to map future weather scenarios and events, and developing intelligent systems such as digital twins, will help utilities better understand the impact of various events.
Advanced analysis of a broad range of contingencies resulting from faults and demand fluctuations will also help utilities better prepare and respond.
Engaging in regular, open discussions with regulators and other government bodies within the industry is a critical final step in planning for resilience.
Investing in digital solutions
Accenture’s research showed increased system flexibility will become the greatest priority for utilities over the next decade, with 95 per cent agreeing a more flexible network is the most cost-effective method to increase resilience.
Investment in digital solutions across microgrids, distributed generation, storage, connected services and network reconfiguration will become critical in supporting resiliency and flexibility.
Maintaining a digital twin of the utility network can help utilities simulate and plan for future disaster scenarios. Enel in Sao Paulo has undertaken the Urban Futurability project to build a resilient, sustainable urban electricity system.
This includes a network of about 5,000 grid sensors that feed information to a digital ‘twin’ of the system that simulates operations.
By using 3D modelling and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the twin provides real-time data to operators and stakeholders for more pervasive visibility and control.
Across Europe, grid flexibility improvements have been prioritised as a means of more effectively integrating Distributed Energy Resources (DER), addressing grid bottlenecks, reducing congestion and lowering costs.
In the UK, the country’s largest electricity distributor, UK Power Networks (UKPN), has implemented an advanced automated control system to manage over 500MW of power generated by DER.
Supported by innovative control schemes and AI to process big data and determine safe, efficient ways to run the network, the control system allows for a comprehensive view of network operations and supports real-time operations, creating more effective dispatching of field teams in the event of extreme weather events.
A three-pronged approach
There are three broad areas for utilities to improve their network, once the core foundations of resiliency have been put in place. These areas include:
- Hardening the network – utilising traditional approaches including the undergrounding of assets, pole replacements and developing flood defences
- Reinforcing restoration effectiveness – strengthening the network capability to reduce outage time to the minimum
- Developing greater system flexibility – reviewing current network visibility and investing in digital solutions
The flexibility of the network is most important in reducing the impact of extreme and potentially multi-disaster events.
There are numerous ways in which flexibility can be achieved– whether that’s through implementing systems that automatically reconfigure the network to use redundancy or DER that provide localised support.
Greater flexibility in the network can also be more cost- effective in long-term approaches responding to high impact, extreme events.
Not only that, advocating for flexibility supports the wider agenda when it comes to greater active management of the network to provide cost effective support for renewable energy generation, electric vehicles and customer or community-owned batteries.
Shifting to a resiliency mindset no doubt has its challenges, but the journey is a necessary one. Waiting to implement the foundations of resiliency and the investments needed to future-proof the network is no longer an option.
As an industry, we cannot remain at the mercy of extreme weather and black swan events, the operational and financial risks are simply too high.
Utilities must take the lead and work together to establish industry standards and definitions for resiliency, and must continue delivering sustainable and effective customer services.
This must involve digital investment and solutions that enable greater flexibility and visibility, and support real-time decision-making.
By championing a strong foundation and resiliency strategy, strengthening the network and prioritising flexibility, utilities will be in the best possible position to prepare for the tumultuous landscape.