Weathering the storm: Mitigating the impacts of natural disasters


It is possible to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters by leveraging grid modernisation and industrial IoT, says Sharelynn Moore, senior vice president, Itron networked solutions business.

This article first appeared in Smart Energy International Issue 4-2019. 
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When Hurricane Irma hit the US state of Florida in August 2017, it brought vicious winds and torrential rainfall, causing millions of people to lose power. The unprecedented size and scope of the hurricane tested every piece of equipment across Florida Power & Light Company’s (FPL) 27,000 mi 2 (70,000 km 2 ) service area.

day. Smart grid technology not only enabled FPL to avoid more than half a million outages during the storm, it also allowed the utility to restore service to customers even before it was safe for trucks to roll [i].

Since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled to around 400 a year [ii], according to the United Nations. This includes drought, floods, extreme weather, extreme temperature, landslides, wildfires, volcanic activity and earthquakes. Globally, disasters have caused more than $1.4 trillion in damage and affected 1.7 billion people over the past 10 years.

Thanks to the utility’s investment in building a stronger, smarter energy grid, FPL was able to restore service to one million customers before the storm even exited its service territory, and two million customers after one

Now, more than ever, utilities and cities need to be prepared to handle natural disasters. The devastation caused by natural disasters has a serious impact on critical infrastructure and can set off a series of unfortunate events. Thanks to advances in technology, communities are responding to natural disasters and their aftermath in ways they never have before.

Grid modernization and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications are revolutionising disaster prediction and response, thereby helping communities increase reliability and safety during disasters and gain insights that were previously unavailable – all while promoting the quality of life, safety and wellbeing of citizens. These applications help communities predict, prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters.

Preparing for natural disasters

Utilities and cities can use IIoT applications to help prepare for natural disasters,mitigate risk and predict issues before disaster strikes. By enabling greater grid awareness, utilities can better understand the state of their electrical distribution system. This enables utilities to spot issues and fix them before they create unsafe conditions, which aids in the prediction of and preparation for natural disasters.

For example, line sensors can monitor for issues or hazardous situations on the distribution line. They enable utilities to anticipate where problems will develop with visibility into intermittent interference from vegetation, equipment not functioning properly, loose connections or heat buildup in the system. Being able to anticipate or detect where fires might occur allows the utility or city to de-energize systems and dispatch crews more effectively.

Monitoring solutions, such as voltage analysis and distribution transformer monitoring, can evaluate the health of devices on the grid to ensure they aren’t failing, which could create a potential safety issue.

In the event of an earthquake, a natural gas leak can occur, which is a dangerous outcome that utilities must vigilantly monitor for and respond to. With methane detection technologies, a leak can be detected, and crews can repair it before it becomes a hazardous situation. Gas utilities can also use cathodic protection to monitor whether gas pipes are corroding before a safety issue occurs.

Additionally, cities can conduct disaster simulations using a synthetic intelligence environment that leverages artificial intelligence to consider, design and experience even the most unpredictable events. Cities can model every conceivable scenario with various data streams, such as from different IIoT sensors. By designing and trialling a city’s systems, they can use this information to better design cities and help mitigate disaster response, including human outcomes.

Responding and recovering from natural disasters

With IIoT applications, utilities and cities can more quickly and effectively respond to the impacts of a disaster, including outages. These applications also allow communities to recover much faster from outages.

For example, following a storm or other weather event, downed power lines and poles can pose a serious safety threat. A utility pole sensor can detect if a pole is down and where, which can be immensely helpful in speeding restoration efforts and can increase response times for poles that need attention. Similarly, line sensors can detect if a power line is down.

Outage detection helps improve response times with real-time intelligence, allowing utilities to accurately understand the size and extent of an outage and what locations are impacted. This also helps with restoration by validating and continuously updating outage extents.

IIoT applications allow communities to recover much faster from outages. In fact, in Houston, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017, more than 250,000 people in Texas lost power. Equipped with smart grid technology prior to this disaster, CenterPoint Energy was able to recover and reconnect people to power quickly, avoiding an estimated 45 million outage minutes for its customers. Distribution automation devices, such as intelligent grid switches, allowed the utility to quickly isolate problems on its grid and restore service to customers.

A smart meter is a key technology that aids in natural disaster mitigation and response. With smart meters, utilities know instantly when the power is out, thanks

to built-in intelligence, which sends an outage alert as soon as the power goes out. Before smart meters, utilities relied on a phone call to learn of a power outage. Such antiquated methods are no longer efficient for consumers today, who have become accustomed to and expect real-time response and action with any service downtime.

A more resilient energy future

As the number of natural disasters around the world continues to rise, the ability to predict, prepare for and respond to natural disasters is of the utmost importance. From storms to floods to fires, the devastation caused by these disasters has a serious impact on utility infrastructure. Utilities and cities need to focus on creating resilient communities that bounce back after natural disasters, predict issues before they become major problems, and restore power much faster while keeping citizens informed. Sensors and IIoT applications are doing just that – helping mitigate risk before disaster strikes and during and after the event – while also laying the foundation for a more resourceful, resilient energy future. SEI


Sharelynn Moore is the senior vice president of Itron’s networked solutions business. In this role, she is responsible for Itron’s networking platforms and smart cities business and strategy, globally. She has more than 20 years of experience in the energy and technology sectors.


Itron enables utilities and cities to safely, securely and reliably deliver critical infrastructure services to communities in more than 100 countries. Our portfolio of smart networks, software, services, meters and sensors helps our customers better manage electricity, gas and water resources for the people they serve. By working with our customers to ensure their success, we help improve the quality of life, ensure the safety and promote the well-being of millions of people around the globe.