Prolonged and costly power outages rank high among the severe weather risks that Canadians increasingly face. Precarious energy distribution systems, deferred maintenance and communication breakdowns have sometimes exacerbated the turmoil of events like the Alberta floods and southern Ontario ice storm of 2013.
A new report drawing on input from energy utilities, emergency responders, technical experts and policy analysts recommends a range of climate change adaptation measures to better protect against system disruption and/or more quickly restore it to service. The Resilient Pipes and Wires Report from the non-profit research and advocacy group, QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems for Tomorrow), argues that investment is imperative for safety, security and business continuity, and to avoid the staggering losses that can result from lack of preparedness.
“Resilient energy distribution is important not only for ensuring the health and welfare of our cities and communities, but also for advancing ‘smart energy’ communities, which improve energy efficiency, enhance reliability, cut costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” asserts Brent Gilmour, QUEST’s executive director.
Heavy rains, flooding, storm surges, ice, snow, high winds, lasting heat waves and bitter cold are counted among now more frequent sources of service disruption and/or damage to delivery networks. The vast majority (90 per cent) of energy distributors surveyed in the QUEST report affirmed that they had experienced negative impacts from a severe weather event within the past 10 years.
The report sets out four components of resilience: Robustness is the ability to withstand and remain operational in severe weather; Resourcefulness is the ability to respond to severe weather events and to manage effectively; Recovery is the ability to restore operations after an outage; and Adaptability is the ability to learn from experience and strengthen resilience in the future.
Achieving this will require commitment and action from the energy distribution sector — electricity, natural gas and thermal energy — and all levels of government. Distributors are advised to identify system vulnerabilities, augment their defences and have operational, staffing and communications plans in place for outages and related fallout. Meanwhile, elected officials and policy makers are called on to ensure that building and land use regulations reflect the reality of climate change, and communities are adequately prepared for storm-triggered events.
Natural extremes can also heighten the potential for human error. “There are real health and safety risks associated with restoring energy services due to inclement weather, poor driving conditions, damaged trees, fallen telephone lines and electricity wires, long work hours and mutual assistance crews working in unfamiliar territory,” the report notes.
On the consumer side, sudden or lengthy power outages can compromise productivity, property, health and safety. “CRCI (University of Toronto’s Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure) has found that the market tolerance for energy service interruptions has decreased significantly, from weeks in 2001 to hours in 2015,” the report reiterates.
Electricity is the most threatened of the three energy supplies due to largely above-ground transmission systems. Notably, Toronto Hydro took a nearly $13-million hit from the December 2013 ice storm — $11.9 million in direct damages and $1 million in lost revenue as more than 1 million customers were without power for multiple days.
However, flooding, ground shifting, sink holes and extreme cold weather can affect underground pipes, cabling and hydro transformers housed below grade. Beyond headline-grabbing tornadoes, floods or ice storms, the report tallies the cumulative costs of smaller incidents like unexpected slope failure, in which the ground level suddenly drops taking buried pipe down with it.
Recommendations for investment and emergency preparedness
The report’s 28 recommendations cover a range of measures from bigger-picture consciousness raising down to the details of dispatching utility staff. Risk assessment, coordinated response strategies and capital investment are primary themes for the energy distributors, while policy makers are tasked with conveying the message, enacting regulations and enforcing compliance.
Focusing on robustness, the report highlights the Conference Board of Canada‘s estimates of a required $62-billion investment in electricity asset renewal over the next two decades — along with some perhaps obvious parameters for implementing upgrades and new equipment and infrastructure. “Electricity distributors can improve robustness by siting infrastructure away from disaster-prone areas such as flood plains, using higher temperature-rated transformers and wiring to withstand extreme heat, replacing wooden poles with concrete poles to withstand strong winds and hurricanes, and burying distribution wires to reduce risks of impacts from ice storms and strong winds,” it states.
Data analytics is a burgeoning energy management tool, but emergency preparedness planners can also deploy it to track the performance of equipment in the path of a storm and spot system vulnerabilities. Advanced analytics and predictive modelling provide an even clearer advance picture.
“This approach can help an energy distributor to more accurately predict which assets are most at risk of failure due to vegetation growth, weather exposure, historical patterns or equipment failure patterns during events,” the report suggests. “Predictive modelling can enable an energy distributor to be better prepared to manage crews, equipment, customers, stakeholders and communications for future outages.”
Monitoring and maintenance of vegetation also figures in recommendations directed to local government, as the report calls on municipalities to establish appropriate setback and tree species requirements for hydro right-of-way areas and to coordinate with their local utilities on trimming schedules. Looking to upper levels of government, recommendations target their role in code development and standard setting, and ability to coordinate national or province-wide efforts.
“Climate models are being developed on an ad hoc basis by local governments and academic institutions among other organizations,” the report observes. “However, there is currently no standard approach to developing regionally specific climate models that contain a level of detail necessary for distributors to make investment decisions to adapt infrastructure.”
Of interest to building owners/managers, the report promotes a broader philosophy of emergency power arising from more frequent and lengthier outages related to severe weather. While the current CSA standard, referenced in the National and Ontario Building Codes, mandates emergency generators to operate life-safety systems, elevators and emergency lighting, QUEST argues that allowance for natural gas-fired generators that could be configured as combined heat-and-power systems would more accurately recognize the plight of building occupants staying put to ride out the storm.
“The focus of the current standard is to evacuate a building during an emergency, and does not yet take non-emergency outages into consideration,” the report states.
Barbara Carss is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.