Technology: Utilities’ edge in combating natural disasters


America sits alongside China and India in suffering the greatest number of natural disasters globally between 1995 and 2015, according to the UN’s disaster-monitoring system, said The Economist in its latest report on weather-related disasters.

The report also stated that the number of weather-related disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled since 1970, to approximately 400 a year.

While these can be distressful statistics, they can also spur innovation and accelerate action. As highlighted in Itron’s 2019 Disaster Preparedness: An Itron Resourcefulness Insight Report, utilities and citizens alike must place a laser focus on disaster planning, response and recovery.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International issue 1-2020. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

The report summarizes key findings from a survey of more than 500 consumer utility ratepayers and 300 utility executives across the United States. It reveals perceptions on an array of topics relating to disaster preparation, response and recovery, exposing a shared and heightened worry about a disaster striking today compared to five years ago.

An alarming 87% of consumers responding to the report’s survey said that they had been impacted by some type of disaster in the past five years. But how have utilities responded? On a positive note, utility respondents collectively revealed a significant increase in their adoption of technology. With this increased sense of awareness and urgency came an emphasis on the top technologies for combatting natural disasters that utilities have on their radar, at the planning stage, or inactive deployment.

Utility investment priorities

When asked about their investment priorities for disaster preparedness, smart metering and monitoring systems topped utilities’ lists.

In addition, utilities prioritise investment in outage detection and restoration, customer communication systems, remote connect and disconnect, and line and fault sensors.

Smart metering (AMI)

Smart metering networks can support a host of complementary industrial IoT applications to improve the performance, reliability and resilience of other critical infrastructure systems. Meters act as IoT sensors that provide utilities with high-resolution data from the edge of their network to precisely monitor energy usage – and when disaster strikes, they can save lives. œ

Outage detection and restoration

The ability of a smart meter to immediately signal an outage at the customer premises, as well as its ability to automatically verify when power is restored, adds an entirely new data stream and source of insight for delivering real-time outage intelligence and ensuring sustained outage notifications and restoration notifications – both with guaranteed delivery timeframes. These capabilities, combined with voltage monitoring and the ability to “ping” meters over the network and from the field, give utilities new tools to speed up outage response and bring customers back online sooner.

AMI improves reliability and outage management on a large scale; such as for storm-related outages, but also for smaller, localised outages that occur on the grid. In turn, the data from smart meters enhances the utility’s ability to detect and localise the outage, and it also speeds up restoration.

Alternately, services like Itron’s Outage Analysis offering provide a pathway for utilities that may not be ready or have the capital to implement a full AMI system. The offering’s bellwether-meter strategy provides the right degree of outage visibility while keeping costs in check, enabling utilities to deploy as few or as many connected meters as required for the desired level of outage visibility.

Customer communication systems

As with other consumer engagement options enabled by AMI, the information provided by customer portals provides a timely, accurate source of information for keeping customers apprised of planning, response and recovery processes. By using interactive dashboards that render interval usage data in intuitive, visual formats, consumers can quickly gain new insights and make smarter decisions about their own disaster planning.

The good news is that customer communication systems have evolved from the static communications platforms of the recent past to multi-channel customer engagement ecosystems. Today’s systems should be designed to provide updates to consumers’ mobile devices, ensuring that they make informed decisions regardless of their location.

Remote connect and disconnect

AMI is the driving force behind smart meters that enable utilities to disconnect and reconnect services automatically and nearly instantaneously by eliminating the need for time-consuming truck rolls or for site visits by technicians. These services answer what may be a dire need for speed – for example, the speed needed to bring a service back into operation in a crisis scenario.

Remote connect and disconnect are just two features of platforms, such as Itron’s OpenWay Riva solution, that enhance visibility into system health and provide robust outage and theft detection.

Line and fault sensors

Utilities are also deploying multiple types of sensors on their networks, including methane detectors, pole tilt sensors, power line sensors, air quality devices and others.

The data these sensors generate enables utilities to predict imminent danger, respond and recover more quickly, and in some cases even predict and prevent dangerous conditions altogether.

For example, a gas leak can be a typical result of an earthquake. By using methane detectors, utilities can sense the buildup of the dangerous gas at levels below the explosive limit, identify the location of potential risk of a gas explosion, turn off the gas and alert first responders to clear the area – all before an explosion occurs.

And, if there is an imminent threat of wildfires, regional air quality agencies, utilities and communities can use distributed sensors to predict which areas will be most highly impacted, and they can alert nearby populations.

One recent advance is the pole tilt sensor, which uses an accelerometer to detect transitions between horizontal and vertical orientation and reports the angle of tilt.

When the sensor is rotated from horizontal to vertical, during an extreme wind event such as a hurricane, an alert is sent to the wireless network cautioning utility personnel that a pole may be in imminent danger of falling.

Overcoming barriers

The report also highlighted utilities’ stated barriers to technology adoption, leading with “difficulty prioritising technology investments” and “lack of funding.” But, arguably, barriers are just temporary setbacks. Scores of utilities and cities around the world are actively deploying technology for smart communities, and many of those technologies are also geared to combatting natural disasters.

Con Edison serves to illustrate the barriers that utilities are overcoming in the face of the increasing frequency and duration of natural disasters.

In late 2018, Con Edison began deploying 9,000 natural gas detectors with battery optimised communications modules. The goal: To improve the safety of customers by detecting gas leaks and quickly alerting emergency crews. The natural gas detectors work as part of the larger advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) which Con Edison has used to streamline a part of their gas leak process, automatically issuing trouble tickets and sending them to the utility’s Gas Emergency Response Center.

“The company already has procedures with local fire departments when we get a gas leak,” says Magdalena Michniuk, project specialist on Con Edison’s AMI Implementation Team. “Now we’re actually able to tell them where the leak is and send them to a confirmed location. We have since updated response protocols with the fire departments.” SEI

Interested in hearing more?

For an in-depth study and a more expansive list of the technologies that are being used by utilities such as ConEd and FPL to combat natural disasters, download Disaster Preparedness: An Itron Resourcefulness Insight Report at

About Marina Donovan

Marina Donovan is vice president of global marketing and public affairs at Itron. Marina Donovan has more than 20 years of global technology marketing and public relations experience with a background in data security, networking and mobile. She was formerly vice president of marketing at Silver Spring Networks, which Itron acquired in January 2018.

About Itron

Itron enables utilities and cities to safely, securely and reliably deliver critical infrastructure services to communities in more than 100 countries. Its portfolio of smart networks, software, services, meters and sensors helps customers better manage electricity, gas and water resources for the people they serve.