Supercomputer forecasts are now helping utilities prepare for climate change and extreme weather

New York Power Authority will use a national lab’s cutting-edge forecasts to target its multi-billion dollar investments. Other utilities are following suit.

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Climate change is a major threat for utilities, as made clear by the winter storms, heat waves and droughts that have wreaked havoc on U.S. electricity and natural-gas networks this year. Consultancy ICF estimates that U.S. utilities face a $500 billion resiliency gap” over the next 30 years in terms of costs to harden their infrastructure against extreme weather.

But how can utilities optimize these investments to best protect their power grids and generators while keeping costs from spiraling out of control? The historical data that’s informed such investments in the past isn’t nearly as useful when making decisions about such a radically different future. Something else has to fill the gap.

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For the New York Power Authority (NYPA), that X‑factor is a set of supercomputer-derived climate change forecasts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, designed to predict future weather patterns across the country at resolutions of 12 kilometers per pixel.

The project announced last week will bring in industry and academic experts to evaluate these tightly focused temperature and precipitation forecasts. Specifically, the data will be used to model the risks to NYPA’s 16 hydroelectric and fossil-fueled power plants and 1,400 miles of transmission lines. The results, due to be complete in spring 2022, will help inform how NYPA directs the $6 billion it plans to invest in its assets over the next decade.

This is a first for NYPA — an analysis looking at our assets relative to the risk of climate change,” from colder and wetter winters to hotter and drier summers, said Adrienne Lotto, senior director for enterprise resilience at NYPA, in an interview.

NYPA, the country’s biggest state-owned utility, generates a quarter of New York’s power, 80 percent of it from hydropower resources including its Niagara Power Project, and operates much of the state’s high-voltage transmission network. As part of its plan to dramatically expand its transmission grid and achieve a cost-effective transition to carbon-free electricity by 2035, NYPA has to prepare for, respond to and mitigate these impacts,” Lotto said — and the utility can’t do it all at once.”

Image credit: NYPA

Mapping climate-change risks at granular scale

Argonne’s approach to dynamically downscaling” regional climate change models has been developed over years of work with partners such as the U.S. Defense Department and AT&T, to deliver tightly focused predictions of threats to military and telecommunications installations, respectively.

The same concepts apply to utility power plants and transmission grid substations, said Thomas Wall, engineering and applied resilience program lead at Argonne.

These models are physics-based — we’re not using statistics to infer what the future climate will look like,” he said in an interview. That’s pretty computationally expensive,” but Argonne has the supercomputers to run these gigantic models, he said.

Argonne takes input from multiple global climate models and future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios to put bookends on the uncertainty range” associated with predicting future weather patterns at such granular detail, he said.

The magic is when you combine that with additional data sets — topography, for example, or ground cover,” he added. The climate model will tell us rainfall across the region, [and] we can put that information into a hydrological model to tell you what will happen with flooding.” Previous Argonne projects have been able to resolve flooding patterns down to resolutions of 200 meters, he said.

While there’s no way to predict these factors decades into the future with perfect certainty, we can narrow it down to where it’s most plausible,” Wall said. That can show where heat, rainfall, snow, icing, flooding or other risks may overlap with parts of NYPA’s system that present the greatest risk of system disruption.

NYPA may be able to withstand weather impacts to some power lines or substations, but if a strategic substation is disrupted, it could destabilize the whole system,” he said. Then it’s up to NYPA to decide its [level of] risk aversion or risk acceptance.”

Image credit: NYPA

Getting the most out of massive investments in climate-change mitigation 

Other utilities are taking similar steps, driven by state regulatory mandates and internal assessments of the risks involved in missing the mark on effective investment strategies.

Con Edison, one of several New York utilities under fire for botched power restoration efforts after Tropical Storm Isaias last year, has worked with ICF on its climate change implementation plan, ranging from long-term design and planning to real-time operations and emergency response. Argonne is working with California utility Pacific Gas & Electric on optimizing its much-scrutinized, multibillion-dollar efforts to mitigate the wildfire threat from its power lines.

NYPA already has a pretty robust system to manage [its] assets,” Lotto said, with an integrated system operations center using some state-of-the-art technology to monitor its equipment and predict and repair breakdowns before they occur. But its mix of assets is set to change rapidly as it carries out its part in New York’s aggressive decarbonization mandates, including a carbon-free electricity system by 2040 and a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.

That includes making informed decisions” on the fossil-fueled power plants it operates in and around New York City, Lotto said, to reduce the air pollution burden they place on nearby communities. The options for replacing those power plants include large-scale battery deployments, as well as linking into what will be a significant volume of offshore wind power coming into the state.

Where do you site that energy storage? Where do we interconnect that offshore wind?” Lotto asked. That has to be climate-informed.”

To help translate future weather impacts into optimal investment decisions, NYPA and Argonne will work with the utility-funded nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, as well as researchers from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Melissa Lott, the center’s research director, highlighted the climate-change impacts that have exploded into the public consciousness over the past year, from the massive winter blackouts in Texas to heat waves and wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest.

The costs are huge. If we get this right, the benefits could be huge,” she said. It’s really important to get this right.” In that light, the specificity of this study will allow for action that will increase the probability of success. Less blackouts, less risk, less costs.”

(Lead photo courtesy of New York Power Authority) 

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.