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Resilience Is Like an Endurance Race

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Virtually everything in our modern society depends on electricity. After cost, continuity of service is quite possibly the most common measure of an electric utility's performance. It's part of our language. You hear it when we proudly refer to our job as "keeping the lights on!" The term resilience is gaining attention in the utility industry, and a utility may be graded on its ability to recover from very large, uncommon risks like cyber-attacks. The subject is closely related to reliability, yet different in important ways. Because of these differences, becoming a resilient utility is less like a sprint and more like an endurance race.

I spent several years racing off-road motorcycles in extreme endurance events. The words racing and endurance imply both reliability and resilience. These exciting challenges with my teammate lasted 6, 12, and even 24 hours at a time. After 10 hours of a 24-hour race, I watched the sun go down through my comically filthy goggles. From my unforgiving seat, I watched the precious daylight disappear as I hammered over jumps and logs, charged up hills, and blasted through the mud. Through the long night of intense exercise, I had lots of time to think.

An off-road race course is strangely peaceful in the middle of the long night, much like it is in an electric generating station or substation. Few spectators or witnesses are present, and the critters come out of hiding. In my mind, one thought dominated—keep going!

Speed is important to win a race. However, to finish first, you must first finish! The ability to recover from difficulties is vital. Reliability is key—the motorcycle naturally must keep running. Yet many other things could interfere with my racing, and often did. The possibilities of trouble occurring are numerous and unpredictable. What might it be—extreme weather, injury, utter exhaustion, or changing course conditions? A large-impact snag, even if it was highly unlikely, would end our race just the same. If possible, I couldn't let that happen. We considered the possibilities, drawing input from other people and our experience in other races. We established all redundancy possible within our budget.  We prepared with dual lights for nighttime and maintained many spare parts. We prepared to assess, identify options, and adapt on the fly. Above all, we kept moving. Reliability was a given, and we also had to be resilient.  

We seem to instinctively assume that tomorrow will be just like today, although we know life is also punctuated by irregularities. People have accidents, unforeseen things do occasionally happen. Common utility planning processes include scenarios for the loss of a transmission line or a substation transformer—maybe even two at the same time on a nonpeak day. What would happen if the utility lost an entire substation due to fire, an aircraft crash, or severe flooding? Would the utility be resilient? What kind of impact would it have on your stakeholders?

These questions were troublesome enough a decade ago, but the picture is changing rapidly given distributed customer-owner generation resources, smarter grid assets, and cyber threats. Cyber threats dramatically increase the potential to affect enormous portions of the grid.

Threats to Grids

  • Deterioration
  • Cyber Attack
  • Sabotage
  • Acts of Terror
  • Storms
  • Communication Loss
  • Extreme Temperature

Utilities are hardening their infrastructure to prepare for potential threats. Hardening includes steps to limited damage, such as sturdier construction techniques, or keeping spare components on hand.   How should system hardening efforts be prioritized? Loss of a substation transformer that feeds a regional hospital complex has a different impact than one that feeds irrigation pumps. Where are the highest impact facilities? Are those the facilities that supply the most customers, or the most critical customers, or the largest electricity users?

These kinds of questions demand much more thorough scenario development, planning, and training than the industry is accustomed to doing. They also require participation of more stakeholders, much more data, and different data types. Since no single grid entity is typically charged with resiliency, there is a tremendous need for increased data sharing, clear communication, visualization, and collaboration.

The ArcGIS platform enables much more than mapping your assets. It provides instant access to all types of critical information and powerful analytics. This is the information needed to properly evaluate potential threats and bounce back from their impacts if they do occur. These are the tools necessary to determine how to prevent bad things from happening in the future or where to invest wisely. When you need to refine your utility's resiliency efforts, think of that endurance motorcycle race, and use the best tools available. Using the complete GIS platform is the key to running a smart utility.

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform can help electric companies be more resilient, download our free utility ebook.



Pat  Hohl's picture

Thank Pat for the Post!

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Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.

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