Powering Strong Communities

Preparing for the Worst: Fostering Resilience in Public Power

Poles that do not burn in wildfires or snap in extremely high winds. Facilities that won’t flood. Fuel sources that won’t freeze. Equipment that can withstand heat waves. Water that will remain flowing through hydroelectric facilities. Utilities must think through all possible threats and prepare for how to recover when a severe event pushes electric infrastructure beyond its brink.

As community-centric entities, public power systems also play a vital role in supporting community resilience in the face of increasing threats in connecting with other emergency responders, providing information to the community, and making choices about which investments will yield adequate protection without compromising energy affordability.

Here’s how a few public power entities define and foster resilience for the people they serve.

Learning from others

Aaron Melda, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s senior vice president of transmission and power supply, said that when it comes to weather events, TVA distinguishes resilience as how to prepare for and respond to events that affect infrastructure beyond design standards. In the Tennessee Valley, such events can be anything from tornadoes to flooding and wildfires.

“It’s a lot of learning from others,” Melda said. “As we experience actual events, on our system or neighboring systems, we are constantly modifying what are the critical components that we need to have on hand and where do we need to have them such that we can restore things most quickly.”

TVA has worked with local utilities throughout the region to identify priority facilities — such as hospitals, military bases, food distribution centers, and wastewater treatment plants — and then make sure that the right materials, personnel, and training are in place to quickly restore such facilities in high-impact, low-frequency events.

Melda acknowledged that weather volatility seems to have picked up over the past five to 10 years, especially in terms of severe wind events and drought leading to wildfires. As such, he said that TVA has been focused on bolstering risk mitigation for these types of events.

Part of this mitigation is the Regional Grid Transformation, an initiative for which TVA is working with public power utilities in the area to better understand the distribution system and technologies that can aid in faster restoration and higher resilience, such as microgrids.

At the transmission level, which TVA manages, Melda mentioned three key investments that are helping to enhance the region’s resilience: (1) a new system operations center that is designed to be resilient to a variety of events; (2) a new energy management system that can take in more acute data on weather and other factors; and (3) a doubling of the valley’s fiber-optic network to enable the added data sharing and analysis.

Melda said these investments will provide system operators with greater situational awareness and enable utilities on the grid to use the latest technology.

A blurred line

“Resiliency is about how to prepare for the emergencies that may happen, how to address the emergency while and immediately after it occurs, and then how to recover,” shared Tracy Sato, power resources manager for customer partnerships and strategies at Riverside Public Utilities Department in California.

In Riverside, the threat of a potentially catastrophic event such as a major earthquake has long been part of the preparedness culture of the community. However, changing state and local regulations, paired with an increasing incidence of extreme weather events, is shifting RPU’s approach to emergency and resilience planning.

The public power utility is working with other local agencies, such as the fire department and the office of emergency services, to reexamine and in some cases establish processes and roles for each entity during various emergencies. For example, as extreme heat waves become more common, Sato mentioned that RPU has been in discussion with other local agencies about what and who should be involved in setting up community cooling centers and what kind of contingencies the utility should have in place to ensure the centers can remain in operation, even during extreme conditions or rolling blackouts.

Sato also mentioned that RPU has engaged more with the fire department in recent years, and that each entity is helping to educate each others’ staffs about elements related to fire risk and safety.

“Before, you’d have a fire break, and you’d keep your lines clear. Now, you have to think further out from those lines,” said Sato, who added that RPU is exploring the use of drones to help monitor for fire risk.

A line is also blurring between traditional emergency planning and this distribution planning.

One new factor for Riverside as with other communities across California is to be able to avoid subjecting customers to rolling blackouts when there is high demand in a heat wave or a public safety power shutoff (PSPS) in an adjoining area. RPU has a few well sites in Southern California Edison territory that lost power during PSPS events last year.

Scott Lesch, a power resources manager who heads the development of Riverside’s integrated resource planning, said that the process is increasingly about distributed resource grid planning. And this shift presents a challenge in getting historically disparate teams and entities together to coordinate.

The challenge is in trying to forecast distribution needs for grid planning without a full picture of the data. Lesch said that RPU is working to beef up the distribution system to be able to handle an expected influx of electric vehicles in the next few years, while Sato added that state legislation and changing business customer plans are making forecasting murky. She mentioned planned changes to California’s building code toward “energy neutral” buildings and pushes to electrify residences that make it uncertain whether the utility should plan for an increased or flat load in the future.

Despite this uncertainty, there is a clear need for increased capacity. Lesch mentioned that during the last heat storm of 2020, the California Independent System Operator was unable to meet its net peak. Current restrictions and impending planned retirements such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant are putting battery storage at a premium, since it’s one of the only viable options for capacity additions in Southern California.

“We’re driving toward a more renewable future, and that is putting stress on the bulk transmission system,” Lesch said. “There is going to be a lot of storage coming in the system that is going to affect prices. But then you have the whole other side, which is, ‘How do you make your distribution system more resilient?’

“The cost for resource adequacy has almost tripled in the past four years, and it’s not getting any better,” Lesch added. “We can make this transition, but we are going to need to spend money to do it.”   

And while customers in Riverside have been adding rooftop solar panels on their homes and storage at businesses, RPU has also been looking at possibilities for storage and self-generation, especially at critical facilities. The utility received a pair of grants for energy storage services and self-generation that just got approved by its city council.

Ready to respond

RPU has spent more time and money in responding to heat storms and wind events in the past few years, Sato said. Fortunately, it has avoided incurring substantial recovery expenses related to a major event.

That does not mean the utility isn’t preparing for one. Sato said RPU is involved in increased hazard planning, specifically in developing formal procedures for rolling blackouts.

Lesch and Sato also noted that RPU is participating in more exercises, such as the Great ShakeOut. These organized earthquake drills bring together emergency responders to practice and test out whether response plans and protocols include the right allocation of resources and communication. RPU also participates in exercises such as GridEx, which tests utilities’ responses to cyber incidents.

Sato acknowledged that responding to incidents puts a lot of pressure on utility staff. “We’re all emergency responders, and one thing that we’ve learned is we need to make sure we are cross-training people to understand how to manage these things,” she said. “Or else you end up with one person needing to be on-call 24/7 for three weeks and that wears thin.”

“One of the most important components that we do to prepare our workforce is periodic drills on multiple kinds of events,” said Melda.

As TVA gains intel and lessons from other entities at the national level, it incorporates those lessons into the drills and other training programs offered to local power companies, he said.

“Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is, when one of these things happens, is to know that your folks are trained and ready to respond,” Melda added.

Setting the community up for success

Having community networks to rely on helps keep people resilient through tough times.

“The nice thing that we have is that we can work very closely with our customers,” Sato said. “And we can work through a fairly extensive communications network through our city council.”

She said that RPU works with the city’s public information officer to help the flow of correct information, including on social media channels, where many people turn for information during emergency events.

Part of the connection to city communications means that RPU has been able to tap into the city’s emergency notification system regarding potential for rolling blackouts. This has helped prevent misinformation from spreading across the community about how residents might or might not be affected. RPU also works with several community groups that have reach into portions of the community that do not have access to technology such as older, marginalized, and lower-income residents. 

Both Lesch and Melda highlighted how the public power model allows for increased resilience.

“In some cases, because we are locally regulated, we have a little more flexibility in how we try to address these planning needs in choosing the local constituents we work with and tackling the problems,” Lesch said.

We have a model that allows us to look holistically at all components necessary to ensure reliability and resiliency,” Melda said. “We can put rules, criteria and planning in place to make sure those are going to be the outcomes of our investments.

“If you contrast that with a market model, where they rely on price incentives, energy incentives, or different incentives and hope for an outcome, it is fundamentally different,” he said. “We are better positioned to ensure that the lights stay on at the least cost because we have a model that is integrated.”