With just less than two weeks left until the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season starts, utilities throughout the United States are updating their plans and preparing for potential storms. Tropical storms and hurricanes can knock power and telecommunications out for millions in an instant. When this happens, utilities need to be prepared.
Many utilities have agreements for mutual assistance with each other in the event of natural disasters and storms. This is often why convoys of utility vehicles are hitting the roads, headed for the location of the latest large storm or disaster. The mutual assistance network is a cornerstone of electric utility operations during the large tropical storms that can affect their service territories.
For example, when Hurricane Irma took aim at southwest Florida in September 2017 and left millions without power across most of the state, utilities had to dispatch rescue services across 27,000 square miles of affected area. While Florida Power & Light is responsible for a majority of the impacted area, 13,000 workers from voluntary mutual assistance programs joined FPL’s 11,000 employees to aid in restoring utilities to affected people. Despite initial estimates that many would not have service restored for weeks, thanks to the mutual assistance they were able to make restorations in a fraction of that time.
Similarly, when Hurricane Matthew also hit Florida in October 2016, it knocked out power to more than a million people and cost more than $1.49 billion in damages to the state. Total outages reached their peak level on October 9, with roughly 2.5 million residential, commercial, and industrial electricity customers without service across five states. In absolute terms, Florida sustained the largest peak outages during Matthew, with nearly one million customers, or 10% of all electricity customers in the state, without service. The collaboration efforts among utilities enabled power to be restored to 99% of the impacted households and businesses quickly and efficiently.
With rapidly increasing technology, including highly accurate weather forecasts and machine learning, utilities have an added tool to prepare even earlier for impending outages from tropical systems. With these new tools at their disposal, utilities can reach out for mutual assistance and prepare to quickly restore service to customers even before anyone has lost power or telecommunications. These advances in technology are helping to lessen restoration periods even more.
Computer models ‘learn’ by using historical outage incident information, weather forecasts, and other data to predict the level of outages that are likely to occur. This can help utilities in the areas that are predicted to be hit hardest to send out calls for mutual assistance ahead of time and make plans to distribute incoming assistance to restore utilities in the most efficient and timely manner.
As Hurricane Michael, one of the two most destructive storms to ever hit the U.S. approached Florida and created a ‘cone of uncertainty’ around the Tallahassee area in 2018, local utility companies were well aware of the potential situation. They called upon 125 crews from the more than 1,000 utilities from outside of the area and stationed them near areas forecasted to be most heavily impacted before the hurricane even hit. This allowed the utilities to decrease restoration times significantly.
While weather can wreak havoc on a location – particularly during tropical weather season – utilities and their weather insights providers have uncovered the key to restoring power quickly following the storm. Machine learning is only just beginning in this area; within the next few years, we expect the technology to grow and adapt along with the changing climate.