Many Utilities are struggling with the challenges of hardening their systems against the increasingly destructive powers of intense weather while tackling ever-increasing customer and regulatory performance expectations. Current storm-hardening programs typically trend toward two general areas: enhancing distribution systems and protecting substations against flooding.

While distribution enhancements and selective undergrounding represent the initial stage of storm-hardening programs, they also represent limited high-gain/“low hanging fruit” opportunities that are an obvious starting point for two reasons. First, protecting substations from flooding preserves critical high-value, high-cost assets. Second, distribution enhancements enable fewer outages during normal weather and improved restoration after the majority of storm events.

When people think of the electric grid, they tend to picture the massive high-voltage transmission lines and tall towers that march across the countryside. But it’s the smaller, medium-voltage electrical lines of the electric distribution system that cover the most distance, delivering power to almost every home and business in the country.

Considering that fact in an era when smart phones and Google Maps are ubiquitous, it may come as a surprise that utilities have very little visibility into their distribution systems. Most systems still rely only on breakers to disconnect the lines in the event of a fault, customers to call in and report an outage, and line crews to find the circuit and restore power. But this may be changing.

The nation’s municipal utilities, electricity cooperatives and local governments increasingly recognize the benefits of adding solar electricity to their energy supply mix. Some are building and owning their own solar systems, while others are entering into power-purchase agreements (PPAs) financed by third parties.

On Dec. 11, the city council of Austin, Texas, approved a law that lays out plans for the city to add 950 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) by 2025. At least 750 MW will be utility-scale solar, and the balance of 200 MW will be installed within the city limits – and half will be customer-owned. 

Also in December, the Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) issued a request-for-proposal (RFP) for up to 30 MW of distributed-generation solar PV to be installed at various locations in Oklahoma. WFEC is a transmission and generation cooperative with 22 member co-ops, primarily in Oklahoma and New Mexico. Individual distribution co-ops in multiple states are installing solar PV within limits set by their transmission and generation partners – and pushing to get those limits raised.

Control Systems built on security by obscurity and inaccessibility worked well for analog, but those days are gone. Modern control systems are digital, connected and their specifications are generally available online. Even isolated systems are not immune due to the prolific use of laptops, cell phones and USB sticks sharing trusted and untrusted resources. This connectivity and access to online information creates an asymmetric threat with the result being that isolation is no longer enough to secure and be compliant with today’s standards.

Today’s control systems rely heavily on software to deliver functionality and security. Unintentionally, flaws in software can expose vulnerabilities an attacker can use to compromise the system, exposing valuable information or process control. Sometimes this compromise can result in the system operator not even knowing they are no longer in control. When a compromise is so complete, the cause can often be traced to a failure of the software’s “chain of trust.” 

Utility companies today face an environment full of challenges and uncertainty. Transformational forces are driving the entire industry to make significant changes in order to adapt. These changes require utilities to reconsider their preparedness in the face of a crisis, which can hit an organization in many different ways: a security breach, regulatory non-compliance and even weather-related disasters. As the industry transforms, and executives seek to grow their businesses and streamline processes, new vulnerabilities and threats arise. If not handled carefully, these weaknesses can lead to organizational crises and damaging outcomes. Gone are the days of merely having a crisis plan in place. Today, adapting to change, uncertainty – and even crisis – requires a cross-functional, integrated and dynamic plan to ensure it will be effective regardless of the issue. 

With 2014 clocking in as the warmest year on record, climate change has a lot of businesses rethinking their 2015 strategic plans. As cause and accountability debates rage on elsewhere, energy and infrastructure developers must face the practical realities of climate change in their project planning, project execution and operations. The question is no longer if, it’s how.

When it comes to climate change, infrastructure planners must think in terms of resilience and responsiveness. The resilient business will have processes in place to manage risk, reduce impacts of extreme weather and address a new climate environment in how, where and when projects are developed. 

Past generations produced waste that was not as toxic as today’s, in a culture with fewer environmental regulations, so open burning and burn barrels were commonplace. The first U.S. incinerator was built in New York City at Governors Island in 1885, and by the middle of the 20th century, incinerators were located across the country. However, many of these facilities did not control their air pollution and were shuttered with the implementation of the Clean Air Act of 1970. The act established new standards for air emissions that were eventually met by the WTE facilities constructed in the 1980s and 1990s. 

As an example, energy extraction through hydraulic fracturing faces some of the most controversial concerns. The clean energy, job creation and energy independence arguments for those development projects become irrelevant for residents who are reliant on local groundwater. 

NIMBY (not in my backyard) challenges can add significant costs, risk and complexity to energy and other infrastructure projects – or derail them completely. In fact, local public resistance can be one of the most intractable obstacles to project success. And it’s far from a mere public relations challenge. NIMBY challenges can significantly delay or halt federal regulatory approval processes, such as those pertaining to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. 

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