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Weathering the Storm: Climate Change Threats to Power Grid Infrastructure

As our global climate continues to undergo profound transformations, the challenges posed by climate change are increasingly felt across various sectors of society, including critical infrastructure. 

Climate change, characterized by rising temperatures, increased occurrences of extreme weather events, and shifting precipitation patterns, have exposed vulnerabilities within power networks. Often designed under the assumptions of historical climate patterns, now they are increasingly susceptible to the new normal of extreme weather, prolonged heat waves, and more severe freezing. 

On the other hand, some asset owners might benefit from climate change by potentially reducing the need for extensive maintenance and refurbishment investments in areas where weather conditions have become milder.

In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the multifaceted impacts of a changing climate on power infrastructure, and shed light on the strategies and innovations being developed to fortify their resilience.

Table of Contents

The Vulnerability of Power Infrastructure

The global landscape of power infrastructure is vast and intricate. These critical systems supply energy and facilitate countless aspects of daily life. However, beneath their apparent robustness lies a vulnerability that is increasingly exposed and amplified by the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. Aging infrastructure, extreme temperatures, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and storms collectively jeopardize the reliability and resilience of these critical networks.

Factors for Power Infrastructure Vulnerability

Many power networks were constructed decades ago, designed to operate under the climatic conditions of their time. These systems face increased stress and strain as the climate evolves, pushing them beyond their original design parameters. This aging infrastructure is ill-prepared to withstand the emerging extremes of weather events, resulting in higher failure rates, reduced efficiency, and increased maintenance costs.

Rising global temperatures and the intensification of heatwaves can strain power generation and distribution systems, leading to overheating and increased electrical resistance in power lines and transformers. This results in transmission losses and reduces the amount of electricity output. Also, prolonged exposure to high temperatures can decrease distribution equipment’s lifespan, necessitating frequent maintenance and replacement.

Important to note that prolonged higher temperatures can have several implications for vegetation management around power lines. Warmer temperatures means longer growing seasons and increased vegetation growth and increasing the risk of contact with power lines. ​​Given the increased risk, power utility companies may need to conduct more frequent monitoring and trimming activities to minimize the risk of contact.

The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires pose a grave threat to power systems.  Wildfires can ignite power lines, leading to power outages and damage to electrical infrastructure. The intense heat generated by wildfires can cause power lines to sag, potentially leading to short circuits and equipment failure.

On the other hand, power lines can also play a role in igniting wildfires, with the risk primarily arising from power lines that have been poorly maintained or are vulnerable to environmental stressors. When high winds, lightning, or vegetation come into contact with power lines, it can result in sparks or electrical malfunctions. Sparks, especially in the presence of dry vegetation, can serve as the ignition source for a wildfire; fallen lines due to storms and high winds can initiate fires as well.

Winter storms can bring frigid temperatures, heavy snowfall, and ice storms. 

Extreme cold can impede the operation of power networks by causing mechanical failures in power generation equipment, increasing the risk of malfunctions and reducing electricity generation capacity. Cold temperatures can lead to ice buildup on power lines and transmission towers, increasing the risk of line damage or failure, resulting in power outages. 

Flooding, whether caused by heavy rainfall, snowmelt, storm surges, or overflowing rivers, is detrimental to the resilience and reliability of power systems. Floodwaters can inundate electrical substations and transformers, which results in equipment damage, and electrical outages, and even pose a risk to public safety. 

Hurricanes and storms, characterized by their fierce winds, torrential rainfall, and powerful storm surges, represent some of the most destructive natural disasters on the planet, with coastal regions being particularly exposed to this phenomenon. These extreme events can lead to power equipment damage and supply disruption.

Asset owners need to understand at asset level what the changing picture is, often for multiple different types of extreme weather events. Where on their network are their assets experiencing harsher conditions, where are some conditions perhaps milder; and do your asset monitoring, management, refurbishment and construction requirements reflect the current and future reality? 

Understanding the Current Climate Change Challenge

2023 has witnessed many different extreme weather events around the globe. 

As an example, Storm Ciarán recently hit western Europe, bringing record-breaking winds, heavy rain, and floods. The impacts of the storm included knocked down trees, power outages, evacuations, damaged homes, school closures, and disruption to transport, including airport closures across France, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.

Hot temperatures have spurred record precipitation and flooding in Libya and India, destroying highways and other infrastructure, while in the United States, heavy rainfall caused Vermont’s worst floods in a century. 

Almost 40 million people were put under a winter weather alert across the southern-central United States at the beginning of 2023, as a winter storm swept across states from Tennessee to Texas, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity for days. 

About the Spottitt Icing Analysis for Europe

As a company that employs satellite data to analyze the impact of environmental conditions on critical infrastructure of our clients, we at Spottitt decided to pick one of the many extreme weather events impacting infrastructure  and do a comprehensive European comparison.

In this article, we present our Icing Analysis for Europe, in which we compare icing risk data for the years 1998 – 2003 vs 2018-2023 to see how the patterns of icing risk have changed. 

Icing is a delicate process where small changes in environmental conditions can significantly influence the resulting type and amount of icing. There are three distinct types of icing; each of it occurs under specific but different conditions of wind speed, relative humidity, dewpoint, skin and air temperatures and precipitation type and amount. 

For the purpose of this analysis, we have explored the geographical distribution of the total number of hours where the conditions for one or more of the three icing types are met, to make a combined icing risk analysis. 

Source data: Copernicus’s ERA5-Land hourly data from 1950 to the present.

Color ramp explanation, on the left image below: Going from dark purple, which means a 100% or more decrease in the risk of icing, to dark burgundy, which means a 100% or more increase in the risk of icing, or put another way, double or more the number hours where your assets are experiencing the conditions required for icing of any type.

Plain green, as shown on the right image below, indicates no significant change in icing risk.

GIS Color ramp

Analysis Findings for Selected Countries

Ireland:

90% of its territory has experienced an average increase in icing risk of 200%. The average number of icing hours was approx. 11 hours per year in 1998 – 2003 compared to 26 hours per year in 2018-2023. 2018 was a record year is a total of 265 hours of icing risk experienced by assets around Dublin.

Great Britain:

More than a 100% increase in icing risk occurred along much of the west coast and the east coast of Norfolk. A 30 to 50% increase in icing occurred in western parts of Wales and Devon, and around the cities of Glasgow and Chester. For the rest of Great Britain, there has been an average 15-25% decrease in icing risk, reflected in the average hours of icing risk per year across the whole of GB, dropping from 112 hours in 1998 – 2003 to 99 hours in 2018-2023. 

Compared between the two time ranges, the minimum number of icing hours was 749 in 1998 vs 438 in 2019, while the maximum 1035 in 1999 vs 775 in 2018.

Click to enlarge 

Portugal:

The northern parts of Portugal are experiencing a decrease in icing conditions, while the southern part remains unchanged, having 0 hours of icing risk. 

Spain:

There is a decrease in icing conditions in the northern part of Andalusia and parts of Extremadura and Castile la Mancha. In comparison, the northern coastal part of Galicia and Asturias became more prone to icing, increasing from 0 in 1998 – 2003 compared to 14 hours on average in 2018-2023.

France:

Most parts of France have become less prone to icing, going down from an average of 97 hours per year in 1998 – 2003 to 59 in 2018-2023. In 1998 – 2003, the minimum was 569 hours in 1998 and the maximum was 773 hours in 1999, compared to a minimum of 436 hours in 2018 and a maximum of 626 hours in 2019. Only a few small areas around the coastal city of Bayonne in the south, parts of the west coast, and the area on the border with Italy have become more prone to icing.

Click to enlarge 

Switzerland:

The northern part has experienced a decrease in icing conditions, receiving an average of 36 hours in 1998 – 2003, reducing to 25 hours in 2018 – 2023. In absolute numbers, the maximum value of icing risk, 430 hours, occurred in 1999 vs 260 hours in 2018. The icing risk in the southern part of the country mostly remains unchanged, with limited or no icing risk observed.

Italy:

Most of the country has seen a decrease in icing risk, from an average of 17 hours in 1998 – 2003 to 8 hours in 2018 – 2023, with a maximum number of 466 hours in 2003 and 299 hours in 2018. However, there’s an increase in icing risk around Bologna, to the north of Naples and in some areas of the Alpine region.

Click to enlarge 

Other European Countries like Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Baltic countries, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have seen their average number of icing hours reduced.

In Norway, for instance, the average number of icing hours decreased from 890 to 816, with a minimum of 3885 hours in 1998 compared to 3175 hours in 2018. 

Sweden has also experienced a decrease in icing risk, with an average of 564 icing hours in 1998 – 2003 compared to 529 in 2018 – 2023.

In Germany, the average number decreased from 231 hours in 1998 – 2003 to 137 hours in 2018 – 2023, with a maximum of 894 hours occurring in 2003 compared to 674 hours in 2021.

Click to enlarge 

A nice demonstration of why icing, and in fact, all extreme weather data, must be looked at on an asset scale rather than taking country-wide averages is the region encompassing Greece, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Bulgaria. All have declining country averages for icing risk but have large and distinct geographical areas where icing risk has more than doubled.

Click to enlarge 

In summary

It is no surprise that our analysis shows that for all countries in Europe when you look at country averages annual icing risk has reduced, but the devil is in the geographical detail:

  • 67% of Europe has experienced no significant change in icing risk
  • 31% of Europe has experienced an elimination of icing risk
  • 2% of Europe has experienced a doubling or more in their icing risk

Asset managers who have a detailed asset-level understanding of icing risk and icing risk trends are in a good position to capture savings in reduced levels of icing-related investment in monitoring and mitigation in areas where icing risks have reduced to almost zero. But what asset managers save in one area, they may very well need to invest in monitoring and mitigating the impact of icing in other areas that now have a much higher icing risk than historically.

Icing risk is just one of the many severe weather event types that asset owners need to have an asset-level understanding of to ensure the safety, climate resilience, and operational efficiency of their infrastructures.

We at Spottitt can also analyse other events, such as wind or rainfall, to help asset managers implement tailored inspection, maintenance and investment strategies for their networks. This involves streamlined monitoring of assets and the conditions that they are experiencing, understanding the diverse impacts on different parts of the distributed network, and prioritizing maintenance or upgrade work for vulnerable assets.

Strategies for Resilient Infrastructure

To address the need for resilient infrastructure in an era of increasing climate uncertainty, proactive measures should be taken to prepare and protect infrastructure, including: 

Flexible Design and Construction:

  • Infrastructure projects should incorporate flexible design and construction methods that account for changing climate conditions. This may involve building structures that can withstand higher temperatures, increased precipitation, or more robust materials that resist extreme weather wear and tear. Prior site analysis can help identify optimal locations for infrastructure by considering various factors such as weather conditions, land characteristics, vegetation patterns, and more.

Enhanced Energy Infrastructure:

  • Adapting energy infrastructure to climate change is essential for maintaining network integrity and energy supply. This includes identifying vulnerable parts of the network that are more exposed to extreme weather events, and securing them against their devastating effects. 

Adaptive Technologies:

  • Utilizing advanced technologies like weather forecasting, (near) real-time data monitoring, and early warning systems can enhance infrastructure resilience and facilitate post-event damage recovery by providing timely and consistent information for decision-makers.

Role of Remote Sensing in Critical Assets Protection

Satellite data, in particular, with its wide spatial coverage, frequent and sophisticated updates, offers crucial insights into weather patterns, and an array of other environmental risks to infrastructure. 

Satellite data enable the identification of vulnerable areas and the assessment of potential impact scenarios in a given region. This data also aids in the planning, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure that can withstand local climate and geological conditions. 

From wildfires to severe winds, from freezing temperatures to floods, the advanced analytics derived from satellite observations empower decision-makers with timely and accurate information. This, in turn, facilitates the implementation of proactive strategies, such as reinforcement of critical infrastructure, and resource allocation for emergency response.

Analysts can develop accurate predictions by leveraging historical data and real-time observations, allowing asset managers to prepare better and mitigate impacts. The role of satellite data and analytics in protecting critical infrastructure is pivotal in building resilience, minimizing damage, and ensuring the continuity of essential services in the face of climate change.

Lucy Kennedy
Lucy Kennedy

Spottitt CEO and Co-Founder

Seweryn Zawadzki
Seweryn Zawadzki

GIS Specialist at Spottitt

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