We are already experiencing the effects of climate change in the United States. Statistics show more frequent and powerful extreme weather events, such as floods or hurricanes; and it’s expected to get worse. When you consider population growth projections along with changing technology trends there is the potential for catastrophic impact on our utility infrastructure.

“Data shows that at least 207 natural disasters were recorded globally in the first six months of 2020 — this is above the 21st-century average (2000-2019) of 185 disasters.” – AIDash

Going forward, experts anticipate that there will be a higher demand for energy and other resources, stretching utility capacity to its limits and possibly causing shortages and outages. And many utility infrastructures, engineered and built in previous decades and in the face of different climatic challenges, aren’t prepared. So, it currently looks like we are going to need creative solutions quickly!

Climate Challenges on the Horizon for Utilities

Natural disasters put utilities in danger—both physically and financially. Repairing storm damage and updating infrastructure in the wake of an extreme weather event, puts utility suppliers financially and physically at risk. This is why it’s critical for these businesses to become more resilient, and more proactive, in the face of climate change.

Physical Challenges

As cities expand, more homes are being built in places that are at risk for climate-related damages. For example, areas that are prone to wildfires and hurricanes are under increasing threat as global temperatures rise. And utility companies must follow them, putting their systems and assets at greater risk. The danger is already present, but this will undoubtedly impact utility services at an increasing rate.

As another example, utility suppliers in western states are reaching to meet booming demand for air-conditioning during periods of record heat. At the same time, they must be careful not to spark wildfires made more destructive because of unprecedented drought. In recent years, utility suppliers have made the desperate choice to shut off power lines to avoid starting fires.

Let’s look more closely at the different types of utility services and how they may be impacted in the coming years:

  • Electricity – Many prediction models indicate that climate change will result in considerable sea-level rise, which will create new vulnerabilities. Nine nuclear power facilities in the nation are within two miles of the ocean and many of the 8,625 power plants throughout the company were purposefully built near water to provide access to it. As a result, power plants are already vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. At the same time, homes and businesses will place a higher demand on energy boards as temperatures rise and outside air quality decreases.
  • Water – Environmental changes and the needs of growing populations will require more water for residential and industrial use, as well as agriculture and irrigation. Simultaneously, rising temperatures and more extreme, less predictable, weather conditions will likely threaten water supply and further reduce the quality of groundwater.
  • Gas – Natural gas consumption is rising as well because it has largely replaced coal in electricity generation. In fact, global demand for natural gas is expected to rise by 3.6% in 2021 as the economy rebounds. Though government regulations will likely curb this demand in the process of working towards net-zero emissions objectives, there are concerns about supply security in the future.

Financial Challenges

Utility suppliers must also think about the expense of waiting too long to prepare their infrastructures for climate change. Because experience tells us that making repairs and restoring service after the fact is excessively expensive in terms of effort and economics.

Take the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It essentially caused Entergy New Orleans to file for bankruptcy. The corporation cited the need for $200 million–in addition to federal aid and insurance reimbursement of covered damages. The funds were needed to resolve a “liquidity crisis” as it worked to repair and restore the facilities needed to serve its electric and natural gas customers.

Of course, there are strong environmental and social reasons to engage in mitigation measures sooner rather than later: we already know that climate change will exacerbate storms, with greater levels anticipated for this century alone. However, there is an economic argument to be made.

Rather than reacting and being held responsible for astronomical repair projects, utility companies should act now, before risk factors worsen, demand on resources increases, and energy costs rise. They should prepare so that future generations don’t have to cope with costly maintenance on top-heavy infrastructures constructed when environmental conditions were different.

Preventative measures are almost always more cost-effective than reactionary measures. It turns out that by investing early enough, suppliers may be environmentally responsible AND lucrative at the same time.

Related article: Pandemic Speeds the Adoption of Virtual Technology in Utility Mapping.

What Can Utilities do to Prepare for Climate Change?

The time to prevent disruptions caused by natural disasters and triggered by global warming is now!

Now, in 2021, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, 3D scanning, and satellite technology have made great progress towards solving some of these pressing issues. With the aid of cutting-edge technology, it is now possible to collect, access, and analyze information. And this makes the work utility engineers do faster, more accurate, and more cost-effective.

These are some of the tools and techniques that are currently being implemented to help prepare utility infrastructure for the impact of climate change:

  1. Satellite-powered vegetation management and identification of risks,
  2. AI geo-spatial modeling for territory monitoring,
  3. Remote monitoring, survey, and inspection of assets,
  4. Predictive analytics to process and analyze data collected in order to target the most critical points for preventative upgrades.,
  5. Post-disaster surveying via high-resolution SAR data and satellite imagery.

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