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This software factors climate risk and energy equity into grid planning

Utilities need to know how their equipment upgrades will impact vulnerable communities. UrbanFootprint’s platform provides the necessary data.
By Jeff St. John

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An aerial view of a city peninsula at night surrounded by water with lots of lights
Pittsburgh, Penn. (Venti Views/Unsplash)

Utilities are on the front lines of fighting climate change and environmental injustice — and to win these battles, they need data. 

That’s one way to frame the challenge that Elizabeth Cook, director of grid modernization at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–based Duquesne Light Company, faces in putting together the utility’s multibillion-dollar grid investment plans.

Duquesne Light has a lot of older substations that need to be upgraded, she said. Many of those are in places where customers struggle to pay their energy bills and would face significant hardship if the power goes out. Other substations are at higher risk of being taken out by rainstorms, landslides or floods.

Traditional utility engineering studies don’t take these climate impacts and socioeconomic factors into account, Cook said. I started asking, where are the models, where is the data?” she said. I realized that no one was doing it from a holistic perspective.”

That’s when Cook turned to UrbanFootprint. Over the past half-decade, the California-based software provider has built up a database of just about every data point relevant to urban planning — property values, zoning restrictions, local demographics, access to transportation, exposure to water and air pollution, and risks of floods, fires and other environmental disasters.

I wanted a tool that, when I get in a room with decision-makers, I can show them where the substations lie, and the data behind” which ones should be replaced first, she said. UrbanFootprint provided all those layers — landslide risk, energy burden, which areas would be impacted if their power goes out.”

Cook is describing UrbanFootprint’s Grid Resilience Insights platform, designed to help U.S. utilities manage their massive annual infrastructure budgets, which for the largest utilities can stretch into the billions. That level of spending is set to rise dramatically as the country grapples with hardening its grid against extreme weather and expanding it to serve electric vehicles, building heating systems and other tools of a low-carbon future.

But we’ve not been evaluating the intersection of climate risk and community vulnerability” when planning for needed grid growth, said UrbanFootprint CEO and co-founder Joe DiStefano. You have to look at the combination of factors to prioritize your investments.”

State and federal mandates to direct funds to underserved communities, such as the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, adds another layer of complexity to an already complex landscape,” he said.

How do you find the signal through the noise? That’s what we’ve been working on.” 

A complex grid needs comprehensive solutions

Utilities are a relatively new customer class for UrbanFootprint, which DiStefano and co-founder Peter Calthorpe spun out of Calthorpe Associates, a decades-old sustainable urban-planning firm. The company’s software and services are used by governments, infrastructure and real estate developers and financiers, nonprofit entities and other customers to inform thousands of projects and investment decisions in hundreds of cities across the U.S.

Much of that work has focused on helping major institutions understand where they need to invest to build resiliency,” DiStefano said. That makes utilities, which are confronting the rising threat of disruption from climate-change-induced extreme weather events, a natural fit for its services.

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric, UrbanFootprint’s first utility customer, started using its grid resilience platform in 2020 to help manage the risk of extreme heat overwhelming distribution transformers — a significant problem in a state where heat waves are increasingly pushing the grid beyond its ability to deliver power.

DiStefano noted that PG&E has hundreds of thousands of transformers. How should they prioritize hardening those transformers against something like heat-wave stress?”

Utilities have for decades been investing in asset-management technologies that can track and predict when equipment will fail, rather than waiting for it to fail before replacing it. They’ve also been tapping the latest advances in climate science and computing to determine which parts of their grid are most vulnerable to harm from climate-change-induced extreme weather.

But there’s also relative vulnerability to heat waves across different populations and territories,” DiStefano said. When the grid fails in one community, people are more likely to die or have adverse impacts, versus another community where people turn on their generators or leave town.”

If you were just to attack this the traditional way, you’d say, which are the oldest substations, which are under the most stress,” he said. But those assets live in a real world — and that world is populated by people of different types, different incomes, different needs.” This map from UrbanFootprint’s work with PG&E indicates how these ratings can reveal significant differences in heat-wave risk from one substation to the next.

UrbanFootprint’s work with PG&E shows differences in heat-wave risk from one substation to the next.

Duquesne Light has been tapping new technologies and data sources to inform its transmission-grid planning and to better manage its low-voltage grid, Cook said. It started working to integrate demographic and climate-risk data into its substation replacement plans as part of a collaboration with the city of Pittsburgh, which has a long-running project aimed at making its neighborhoods more resilient to climate risks.

Collecting the disparate data sets needed for this analysis and integrating them into traditional utility-planning tools is time- and labor-intensive, she said. UrbanFootprint has automated much of this process, allowing Duquesne Light to get answers to specific questions within hours, rather than the weeks it would take to compile data and model it manually.

Keeping the models up to date is also critical, she said. Analyses that can’t incorporate new and changing data risk becoming snapshots of the past that aren’t useful for ongoing planning.

But with comprehensive and fresh data in hand, Duquesne Light’s grid planners can quickly pull together accurate representations of the various factors that the utility has decided are important for making decisions, she said. This takes the form of a composite index,” or an assessment of various risk factors for each individual grid substation, transformer or other discrete grid asset that can be compared to each other.

This map of Duquesne Light’s territory shows two substations with dramatically divergent grid-resilience” scores. The top-line composite score combines an assessment of each substation’s age and condition, its risk of experiencing environmental hazards such as flooding or landslides, the number of customers who could face exposure to power outages if it were to fail, and a vulnerability” measure linked to the proportion of low-income and elderly customers served by each substation.

UrbanFootprint's map of Duquesne Light’s territory shows two substations with divergent “grid-resilience” scores

Utility planners are busy enough analyzing the grid and designing projects to make it better, Cook noted. Asking them to explain to their higher-ups why one project should be prioritized over another isn’t the best use of their time. Technology that can rank a host of projects based on agreed-upon priorities levels the playing field” for everyone involved in making the decisions about which should come first.

A lot of this is narration,” DiStefano noted. You’re telling the story about why we’re prioritizing certain projects in these multibillion-dollar investments.” In that sense, the communications are as important as the technical details themselves. In the end, it’s a political decision, it’s a financial decision, and these utilities have to thread the needle between community benefit and financial value.”

From grid planning to EV charging and distributed energy 

Duquesne Light is already prioritizing its first phase of substation replacements based on what it learned from using UrbanFootprint, Cook said. But it’s also looking at new ways to use the platform — like figuring out where to prepare the grid for an influx of new EV chargers.

Specifically, Cook was interested in finding locations in the utility’s service territory eligible for a portion of $7.5 billion in federal EV charger grants created by 2021’s infrastructure law. That funding comes with multiple requirements, including physical proximity to highways or other major transportation corridors, megawatts of available grid capacity, and a certain portion of investment in underserved communities.

That kind of analysis could have taken weeks of time using manual methods, she said. But after asking UrbanFootprint to take it on, the next business day, they had a map of all the real estate that’s qualified and all of the land parcels.”

EV chargers are just one of many distributed energy resources that utilities need to plan ahead for, Cook noted. Rooftop solar systems, backup batteries, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps will bring new complications to how utilities manage their grids, as well as new opportunities to better serve customers and reduce carbon emissions.

But utility investments in underlying grid infrastructure have not been rolled out equally, she said. For the past several decades, most grid expansions have been based on prosperity and growth,” she said — in other words, utilities have invested in places where demand for electricity was increasing.

This dynamic has led to underinvestment in the grids that serve many lower-income and disadvantaged communities. That translates into a lack of infrastructure to support rooftop solar, backup batteries and EV chargers, as a recent study of California’s grid indicated. Duquesne Light plans to use UrbanFootprint’s software to inform an integrated grid-planning process that will assess these potential roadblocks to equitable access to these technologies, Cook said.

DiStefano noted that states including California, Illinois and New York are requiring utilities to take these economic disparities into account for grid planning. We want to help organizations get ahead of that,” he said. We’re already behind by decades, I’d argue, and that’s why we’re in the challenging position we’re in as a society.” 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.