As Hard as It Gets: Utility Hardening Efforts Under the Threat of Climate Change

Author: Helene Rowland

At the current pace, it would take over 300 years to sufficiently harden the US electricity grid. As the climate changes and weather risks accelerate, it’s time to harden the grid faster and better. We need to do better than deploying more field workers for inspection and repair; we must deploy a suite of novel technologies that can scalably protect the grid and the customers that depend on it. Nothing less than the future of the utility is at stake.

As wildfires sweep across California, storms grow in severity in frequency, and outages are increasing year by year, our grid is in a tight spot. 

With many arguing that the century-old utility business model is under attack, the focus turns to the utility’s prime competitive advantage: infrastructure. Yet outdated utility infrastructure is only getting older. Let’s take a look at some numbers from a recent 2020 report:

  • 25% of the US grid is over 50 years old.
  • Over 140,000 transmission line-miles will be due for replacement in the next 30 years.

Hardening the grid (i.e. making it more safe and resilient) is not a novel conceptーthe billions already invested are proofーyet current hardening practices are necessary but not sufficient. Utilities must invest in innovative hardening practices to maintain a position of trust for safe, reliable, and cheap power. The alternative may be a decreasing reliance on wires to deliver power in the coming years and decades.

Where We Are

While infrastructure age is one way to measure how “hard” the grid is, a better way might be to examine how well the grid is functioning. In other words, our standards for the grid might have to go up; what was strong enough 10 years ago may not hold up today.

The graphs below, developed with DOE data, shows the spread of power outages across the United States between 2000 and 2014, varying both geographically and by cause.

Outages by State, 2000-2014: (a) Total Count & (b) Normalized by Population


Without normalization, it appears that outages are simply a function of population density. When normalized by population, however, it is clear that residents of New England, the Southeast, and parts of the Mountain West are more likely to be impacted by outages. While wildfires get most of the headlines, outages are not simply a wildfire-related phenomenon. Rather, outages are driven by a combination of aging infrastructure and a wide spectrum of natural threats to the grid.

While wildfires get most of the headlines, outages are not simply a wildfire-related phenomenon. Rather, outages are driven by a combination of aging infrastructure and a wide spectrum of natural threats to the grid.

Hardening activities are important anywhere there are power lines. As shown in the maps, the web of power lines stretches to every corner of the nation – and as shown below, wildfires are just the 5th largest discrete cause of outages from natural disasters.

Breakdown of Outages from Natural Causes, 2000-2014


Where We Must Go From Here

The price tag of a full grid upgrade, which in theory is necessary every few decades or so, might hover somewhere around $5 trillion. Our $133B in electric transmission capital infrastructure investment between 2008 and 2017 means that a $5 trillion new grid could take 338 years at the same investment pace. Without this sort of time, it’s time to look to innovation.

The onus is on utilities to accelerate grid hardening at lower cost. Some utilities are tackling this issue head-on, with promising work that includes First Energy’s Center for Advanced Energy Technology and New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision. Technologies like REFCL (or other fault detection and mitigation technologies), while still expensive, are being piloted with hopeful results at many utilities today. Hard technology is not the only solution: the incorporation of data into utility infrastructure, or recognizing data as infrastructure, will also be central to scalable hardening and widespread infrastructure monitoring.

In ADL’s work with PG&E on wildfire ignition prevention through our DOE-funded ProblemSpace platform, four key innovation gaps have been identified. We invite innovators to pitch their ideas and technologies that can accelerate the scope and pace of hardening through the Wildfire Ignition Prevention Challenge. Innovators can also feel free to contact us with any questions about the challenge and its objectives.

Utilities in every geographyーnot just those that are wildfire-proneーcould benefit from system hardening technologies that reduce the labor required for vegetation management, thus allowing more miles to be cleared each year with a limited supply of qualified field workers. Similarly, technologies that quickly identify faults and mitigate the impact of those faults can not only prevent wildfires but could also help provide actionable visibility to line icing and sagging, phase-to-phase faults (i.e. lines touching), and more.

We welcome engagement with other utilities throughout the country on how to define problem statements for their territories to address system hardening challenges unique to individual network topologies.

Utilities, with some exceptions, do not compete over customers. This opens an opportunity for knowledge sharing throughout the industry to innovate towards a safe, reliable, and cheap grid for decades to come. Let’s work smarter together to harden utility infrastructure that, in the absence of innovation, will only become more dangerous, outage-prone, and ultimately more expensive to replace.


PG&E Wildfire Ignition Prevention Challenge