Study Suggests Communications, Technology Improve Utilities’ Disaster Response
Wednesday, October 31, 2018 | Comments

Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) released a new study that looks at how utilities and communities across the country can be better prepared for disasters. Findings included the importance of cross-training exercises between utilities and emergency response personnel and the use of satellite and drone technology, along with information sharing.

"This case study analysis makes clear the importance of gathering information through technologies such as SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems and drone capability, then sharing that data in real-time interaction between utilities and government in a natural disaster," said Don Boland, executive director of the California Utilities Emergency Association. "Utilities, law enforcement, fire, DOT (department of transportation) and emergency responders cannot be siloed. Everyone needs to share information so that all parties know what can be brought to bear in a disaster response."

The study, conducted for SoCalGas by global consulting firm ICF, investigated damage and disruptions in the energy and transportation sectors caused by four disasters — hurricanes Harvey and Irma, last October's Northern California wildfires and the December 2017 wildfires and subsequent mudslides in Southern California.

"This study gave us key insights into how we can create a stronger energy system that better protects communities," said Jimmie Cho, SoCalGas senior vice president of customer services and distribution operations. "We hope that sharing the results can help enhance resiliency both in California and across the country. The impact of these disasters makes it clear that it's time for action, and we're proud to play a part in that."

Satellite and drone image analysis can pinpoint damage to infrastructure when physical access is limited and speed up response in the time-critical hours following an event. Following the Southern California mudslides, SoCalGas used satellite images to locate exactly where mudflows had occurred and where those locations overlapped with its pipelines. Similarly, drones equipped with methane sensors and high-definition cameras were able to survey for leaks and rapidly assess damage.

In addition, enhanced cross-training exercises between utilities and emergency response personnel can help communities prepare for successful disaster response. Clear communications and coordination between utilities and first responders is necessary to coordinate access to infrastructure when conditions are unsafe.

Other findings found that backup generation powered by natural gas pipelines is a crucial component of overall resiliency but is not established in some facilities. Combined heat and power (CHP) systems, a highly efficient form of distributed generation, can increase resiliency so long as they use generators that can start and operate during grid outages. Natural gas-fired generators can also be fueled by portable natural gas cylinders brought in to evacuation sites away from dangerous areas. Proactive shut-off of both electric and gas utilities can be used effectively to prevent damage, but service restoration for natural gas is particularly time-consuming and expensive.

To reduce the impact to gas and electric customers in future disasters, utilities can work to further subdivide their service territories, so that smaller areas are affected when service is intentionally interrupted. Because it is underground, natural gas infrastructure is generally more resilient than aboveground electric power lines. Electric outages because of weather-related impacts on aboveground electricity infrastructure were much more common in the four disasters studied. The latest natural gas technologies, such as automated shut-off valves and advanced meters, can help prevent damage or locate damaged areas.

SoCalGas is using the findings from this study to help enhance resiliency locally. The company will apply lessons learned through its Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Planning Grant Program, which will provide $100,000 in planning grants to two selected municipalities.

The full study is here.

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