Electric Utilities and Climate Resilience in the Toronto Region

How long can customers live with a power outage? Do recent severe weather trends represent the “new normal?” How will increased sea level rise and storm surge due to climate change affect power plant management and site selection? How will utilities manage the dual challenges of increasing demand for air conditioning and diminishing water availability for power plant cooling?  Will extreme heat and rains affect electrical substations and underground transformer vaults?

Leading power companies are increasingly looking at how to integrate climate change risks and extreme weather vulnerabilities into existing enterprise risk management approaches.  They are pursuing adaptation strategies to maintain the reliability of electricity supply and reduce the costs of extended power outages in the face of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornados, winter storms, and extratropical storms.

Resilience measures include hardening of electrical infrastructure (e.g. flood-proofing of electrical substations) and more natural resilience initiatives such as wetland restoration to reduce tidal storm surge impacts.

Leadership from Toronto

Image: Damage at Finch Avenue and Black Creek, north Toronto flood, August 2005. Source: City of Toronto

The Toronto Environment Office and an NGO known as Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance (CivicAction) are partnering to facilitate climate change adaptation initiatives among and across sectors, and have started with a focus on the electrical sector.  The Toronto region faces a variety of weather and climate challenges including heavy rain, flooding, and heat waves.  A severe storm in August 2005 exceeded a 100-year record  with over 150 mm (6 in.) of rainfall in a three hour period, resulting in over $647 million in losses (video here). For each of the past three years, insurance companies in Canada have paid out an unprecedented $1 billion to policy holders affected by extreme weather.

In November 2011, the Toronto Environment Office and CivicAction launched the WeatherWise Partnershipto better protect the region’s residents, organizations, infrastructure, and environment from extreme weather.  The goal of the WeatherWise Partnership is to identify risks and prioritize areas for action and investment by businesses, communities, organizations and governments as the region faces more extreme weather.  The Partnership has over 50 members from all three levels of government and from many sectors such as finance, insurance, communications, real estate, electricity, universities, energy, transportation, and telecommunications. It has identified the electrical sector as its first priority for improving extreme weather resilience in the Toronto region.

The WeatherWise Partnership recognizes that electrical power is critical to many sectors (e.g. Telecommunication, Transport, Water Supply and Treatment). Likewise, the electrical sector has certain dependencies on other sectors (Roads, Urban Forestry to trim tree branches overhanging, Logistics and Supply Chains).

According to David MacLeod, Senior Environmental Specialist for the City of Toronto Environment Office, current WeatherWise Partnership projects include:

  • A survey of critical infrastructure and service providers’ tolerance to power disruption.
  • A seminar for the electrical sector on climate change risk assessment including a demo of the Toronto Climate Change Risk Assessment Tool.
  • A pilot “Climate Change Engineering Vulnerability Assessment” of a small portion of the City of Toronto’s electrical grid applying the Engineers Canada Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee‘s protocol.
  • A benchmarking study on electricity sector extreme weather resiliency efforts in other jurisdictions.

David Short is Manager for Market Forecasts and Integration at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System  Operator (IESO), the organization responsible for overseeing the operation of the provincial power grid.   At a meeting of the WeatherWise Partnership on May 15, 2012, on behalf of the electrical sector involved with the Weatherwise Partnership, Mr. Short said that if new extreme weather worst case scenarios are identified, the electrical sector needs to determine any new significant risks to the electrical system. Electricity sector organizations such as the IESO, the Ontario Power Authority and Hydro One plan, construct and operate the power grid to standards that reflect known extreme weather situations (extended heat wave is another example). This work is a core business function for the sector.

Mr. Short commented that with climate change, the frequency and magnitude of some extreme weather parameters may have changed or will change in the future.  To understand the probability of future electricity power system failures as a result of climate change, the sector needs to develop an understanding of and the probability and magnitude of extreme weather scenarios based on best available climate records and climate models in Ontario

UK and US electric utilities resilience effort

A local microgrid in Sendai, Japan. (Wikipedia)

The National Grid Electricity Transmission in the UK has been identified as a sector leader in climate adaptation and is embedding climate change adaptation into day-to-day risk management processes.  The Gulf Coast electric utility, Entergy, is assessing vulnerabilities to its assets, operations, customers and employees to extreme weather and climate change impacts, with $50 billion identified in investments that would avert $135 billion in losses from extreme weather.  Entergy is in regular discussions with major customers to assess their sensitivities to power disruptions, identify weak links and assess the costs and benefits of resilience measures.

Norwich Public Utilities in Connecticut is another innovator in this arena. At a recent U.S. Senate Hearing on Weather Related Outages last month, General Manager John Bilda explained that as part of a comprehensive “smart grid” strategy, Norwich and its affiliates have constructed 16 distributed-generation assets designed to provide 2.5 megawatts of power each, which can be used during emergencies.  Like the bulk power grid, microgrids generate, distribute, and regulate the flow of electricity to consumers, but do so locally. In addition to adapting the power sector for increased peak load demands of the future, this helps mitigate GHG emissions by allowing the entire system to operate more efficiently. Norwich has also been a leader in reporting on the IEEE standard reporting metric for distribution-level disturbances.  As suggested by MIT Energy Initiative’s recent publication, Future of the Energy Grid, better data on distribution-level disturbances (often caused by extreme weather) will help inform future adaptation practices.

The CCAP Weathering Climate Risks program and blog will continue to highlight best practices in corporate resilience and urban climate adaptation.

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  1. Kelly Klima

    Powering New York State’s Future Electricity Delivery System: Grid Modernization

    ‘This white paper articulates long-range objectives for grid modernization in New York State that support initiatives outlined by NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The paper calls for a coordinated approach to harden the state’s infrastructure and modernize the power system.’