Monday, June 17, 2024

Comment: How we can ‘brace’ our infrastructure for record-breaking weather – The Engineer

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The next storm to hit the UK will be a record-breaker. Storms break records for all sorts of reasons – scale, duration, intensity – but this one will have a spot in the history books just for existing. Storm Lilian’s arrival would mark the longest list of named storms in a single season. 

When Storm Kathleen blew in last month, it was only the second time that we had ever reached the letter K in the Met Office’s storm naming system. With four months left in the storm calendar, there’s every chance we could advance further into the alphabet. Climate change has the wind in its sails – and it is routinely buffeting our energy infrastructure. From Agnes to Kathleen, every storm has triggered widespread power cuts across the UK.

December and January both saw three storms in quick succession, subjecting our energy infrastructure to sustained assaults. Some regions have been repeatedly hit hard. We can’t match the quickening pace of climate change with only hope that our infrastructure will hold out. With limited visibility and forewarning, utilities and engineers have historically been on the back foot in trying to keep power online. The population is then advised to ‘brace’ by stocking up on torches and staying inside, but indoors is no safe haven when the lights go out. 

From cold snaps to gale force winds, we see power cuts as part and parcel of stormy weather. But blackouts need not be inevitable. Our energy infrastructure may not have been designed to handle the ferocity and frequency of the storms we’re now seeing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. We just have to take the bracing ethos and apply it to infrastructure instead of communities. 

Fortunately, new technologies are making it more practical than ever to do so. AI modelling and simulation technology makes it possible to bring storm conditions to life in a controlled digital environment so that utilities can see exactly how and where their infrastructure will be hardest hit in a storm. This visibility makes it easier and more cost-effective than ever to take preventive action to keep people safe and reduce outages. 

The grid can’t contend with record-breaking weather while we continue to rely on traditional reactive measures

In the case of flooding, for example, using a network model to virtually replicate live storm conditions offers a highly accurate simulation of rising water levels and where water will come into contact with equipment. During a flooding event, utilities can monitor water levels and make informed decisions about when to de-energise and shut off the flow of energy for the areas most at risk. Post-flood, utilities can identify precisely which assets have been compromised and initiate repairs to restore power for the greatest number of customers.

During a once-in-50-years flooding event, Australian utility Endeavour Energy used a digital twin model to save around 300 hours of manual inspection time and restore power more quickly for those most in need. Digitising the post-storm inspection also meant that the engineers could inspect equipment from the safety of their desks without venturing into the field and risking encounters with submerged electrified equipment.  

If there’s a benefit to be found in the relentless storms we have endured, it’s that we have now amassed huge amounts of data on what causes blackouts and how we can take proactive action to prevent them. 

We know, for instance, that when one million homes lost power during Storm Arwen in 2021, a third of network faults were caused by uprooted trees. Across just two days, Arwen caused an estimated £300m worth of damage in the UK and affected approximately 16 million trees in Scotland alone. Working out which trees will fall where might have seemed like an impossible undertaking a few short years ago. But now we have the technology to identify high-risk vegetation and predict how it will behave during storms – from simulating how individual branches will fare under the weight of snowfall to predicting which trees may fall into lines during high winds. Here in Europe, ESB Networks is already using this technology to prioritise vegetation management, like tree-trimming, to predict and prevent damage to power lines. 

It’s possible Storm Lilian won’t arrive, but ‘L’ is looming on the horizon whether we like it or not. The grid can’t contend with record-breaking weather while we continue to rely on traditional reactive measures. Nor can we afford to be complacent as we enter into the warmer months of the year – they offer little relief given that worsening heatwaves stand to inflict just as much damage. As summer temperatures soar, we have to find ways to protect power lines and ensure the grid can cope with the strain of millions of households switching on fans to keep cool. Whether it’s against storms or scorching temperatures, bracing our infrastructure must be an ongoing process, and harnessing technologies like AI can embed proactivity at the heart of these efforts.

Taco Engelaar, SVP at Neara

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