By Mark D. Miller
The entire U.S. economy is predicated on access to reliable and stable power and water services. Utilities are the lynchpin of a thriving economy, and climate change is exacerbating a myriad of extreme weather events across the nation, threatening the security and safety of power and water utilities and the communities they serve.
In California, the 2020 wildfire season killed more than 30 people, destroyed 8,500 structures, and scorched 4 million acres of land. Nationwide, wildfires caused $16.5 billion in direct damages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans displaced. Wildfires also represent one of the single most significant risks for all of California’s investor-owned electric utilities.
Additionally, in Texas, a severe winter storm in 2021 shut down the Texas power grid, with devastating consequences: 10 million lost power, 246 Texans lost their lives, and there was an estimated $300 billion in economic damages. Mississippi also recently experienced severe flooding that crippled Jackson, overwhelming the city’s main water plant and eliminating access to safe drinking water for 180,000 residents.
Measuring and analyzing weather has always been relevant to scientists and farmers, but in recent years, understanding severe weather developments has quickly become a greater area of concern for leaders around the globe. Manufacturers, utilities, facility operators, governments, and insurers nationwide require forecasting, monitoring, and risk management solutions for increasingly severe weather — including wildfires, floods, winter storms, and hurricanes. These technologies, bolstered by machine learning, provide more precise lightning and other critical severe weather data in seconds, helping key officials make better, faster decisions to protect property, enhance resiliency, and safeguard lives when it matters most.
Mitigating Wildfire Risks
Since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, local governments, insurers, and the general public have scrutinized the outsized role power utilities play in increased fire risk. When wildfires interact with utility equipment, the results can be explosive. At the same time, a great deal of utility infrastructure across the U.S. was designed to withstand the strain of last century’s climate, not today’s reality of increasingly severe and extreme weather.
Consumers are already feeling the pinch, as Texans were repeatedly asked to conserve power during daytime hours over the summer to combat overloaded power grids due to higher temperatures. Power lines, high-tension towers, and generation equipment are aging out, needing repair or are under-equipped, presenting an increased risk of starting fires.
Lightning is also one of the leading natural causes of wildfires, and fires started by lightning burn far more acreage on average than human-caused fires. It stands to reason that, as lightning strikes continue to increase, so will wildfire rates. Pinpointing and understanding where and when a lightning-generating storm is approaching power equipment and service areas is crucial.
A comprehensive and effective lightning alert system must contain several crucial elements, including access to real-time lightning, radar, and storm track information overlaid on detailed maps for storm tracking and preparedness. Sirens and strobe systems can be used at key locations to provide early alerts to workers of incoming storms.
Advanced fire watch cameras also increase the visibility of live conditions at key high-risk areas in the field, allowing agencies to create real-time visual command centers that enable better “round-the-clock” fire monitoring and detection than ever before. Smart camera technology allows users to control cameras and monitor images and video from anywhere, leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect smoke or verify other ignition sources such as lightning and alert key personnel and take decisive action.
Manufacturers, utilities, facility operators, governments, and insurers nationwide require forecasting, monitoring, and risk management solutions for increasingly severe weather — including wildfires, floods, winter storms, and hurricanes.
The hyperlocal weather observations improve real-time assessment of the risk and fuel forecasts more representative of the local geography, increasing the system’s overall performance, reliability, and efficiency. With that blend of technologies, you can minimize risks to your workers and the public while maximizing your ability to respond to potential small fires or repair damaged equipment in a timely manner.
Forestry management agencies, local fire departments, and utility companies are doubling down on wildfire prevention, detection, and response to better manage the increased risk of wildfire. Accurate fire weather data means accurate operational decision-making. Through an advanced network of automated weather stations that are finely calibrated and correctly located to provide accurate, real-time weather and wildfire data, fire districts, departments, and response agencies can plan and execute a mitigation strategy in a faster, more informed way.
Protecting Against Floods
Of course, wildfires are not the only severe weather threat utilities face. From New England to the South and West, major flooding events are capturing more headlines across America. The recent flooding events in eastern Kentucky has caused at least 40 deaths and washed away entire homes in what has been one of the most devasting flooding events ever in the state. Similarly, Europe has seen some of its worst flooding in centuries over the last few years.
As climate change increases the likelihood of more frequent damaging storms, flood risk management will become an even greater priority and challenge for governments and utilities. To maximize safety and protect critical infrastructure, precisely determining when and where floods begin to develop and when water levels reach threatening levels is essential. As flooding grows, decision-makers need more and better flood data to keep our communities safe and minimize disruption to utilities and other crucial infrastructure when bad weather strikes.
Thankfully, new, innovative technologies are helping officials improve planning, mitigation, and protection efforts to safeguard water supplies and lives.
The most effective flood and severe weather management solutions curate and combine data from an integrated monitoring system that includes remote hydro-meteorological sensing instrumentation, telemetry, data curation and quality control, analysis, and visualization designed explicitly for flood warning. That data is transformed into actionable, highly accurate insights to better inform risk decisions and build resiliencies for all stakeholders, including emergency first responders, utilities, state and local government agencies, public works, and individual members of impacted communities.
With early flood warning capabilities, emergency responders gain valuable time to warn the public of dangerous flooding situations, plan an efficient, coordinated mutual response with outside agencies, and execute planned power cuts to maximize safety during and immediately after a flood. In rapidly changing and localized events like flash floods, the system design allows for automated alerting and control to elevate awareness and get people out of harm’s way in near real-time. Access to more complete and accurate data, from flow and pressure to temperature and volume, simplifies decision-making and creates a more effective response. Additionally, real-time water quality stations can be equipped with various specialized sensors for unattended monitoring. Simplifying quality control, these stations save valuable staff resources and create a transparent, ongoing record of quality – ideal for compliance and predictive modeling. Reducing flood risk requires a holistic approach where networks, sensors, modeling, and AI work together seamlessly to help emergency leaders increase the lead time before a flood event, provide more time to make informed decisions, better prepare, limit the damage, and save lives.
Safeguarding Facilities During Severe Weather Events
As the Earth’s climate continues to shift and change, there is no magic wand that will prevent these deadly disaster events. With that said, advanced weather monitoring and forecasting technologies are the best emerging tools to support government response planning and execution, utility service continuity, and public safety when severe weather strikes. By building a better-shared understanding of the weather, community leaders aren’t just preparing for the next storm; they’re fostering a culture of weather-readiness.
Mark D. Miller is Chief Commercial Officer of AEM, which provides global technology leaders tools to empower communities and organizations to survive and thrive in the face of escalating environmental risks. By deploying intelligent sensing networks, operating a secure and scalable data management infrastructure, and delivering high-value analytics through a suite of end-user applications, AEM serves as the essential source for environmental insights. These technologies enable positive outcomes, helping reduce environmental impact and creating a safer world.