A Review of the Presidential Report on Economic Benefits of Avoiding Outages Related to Severe Weather

A Review of the Presidential Report on Economic Benefits of Avoiding Outages Related to Severe Weather


By Will Porter, CN Utility Consulting

This article was originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Utility Arborist Newsline.

We live in a brave new world of deadly billion dollar storms. Between 2004 and 2012, seven of the ten costliest storms in U.S. history have occurred. As the intensity of storms increase and the predicted impacts of climate change become reality, the U.S. power grid will need to be made substantially more resilient than it is today.

Today, we are focused on grid modernization. A smart grid consists of many components, including automated metering, fault sensors, advanced communications, dynamic system flexibility, demand response, microgrids, automated outage management systems (OMS), distributed generation, and other new technologies. Grid modernization has been designed to not only improve the performance and environmental efficiency of the distribution systems under a blue sky, but to improve the defenses that are needed during and after storms, fires, and other disasters. In an August 2013 report, Economic Benefits of Avoiding Outages Related to Severe Weather, the executive office of President Obama supports continued investment in grid modernization and resilience.

The report states, “Resilience includes reconstitution and general readiness such as pole maintenance, vegetation management [UVM], use of mobile transformers and substations, and participation in mobile assistance groups” (Executive Office of the President 2013).

The report contends that the return on grid modernization and resiliency investment will save the economy billions of dollars and reduce the hardship caused by extreme weather. The report, which was prepared by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and the White House Office of Science and Technology, is recommended reading for anyone who endeavors to protect the electric infrastructure and its end users from the devastation resulting from increasing magnitudes of natural disasters.

The report also has many statistics (see sidebar on page 4) that attempt to quantify the impacts of storms, particularly on distribution systems, where the majority of storm-related outages occur. One startling and meaningful statistic for utility vegetation management (UVM) is the proportion of storm-related impacts to customers. When grid functions stop, 98 percent of the financial losses are borne by industrial and commercial customers, leaving 2 percent of the loss to residential customers.

From 2011 to 2012, there were 25 storms exceeding $1 billion. The 144 “mega storms” that have occurred since 1980 have cost the American people more than $1 trillion. Severe storm activity has been increasing in the U.S. since 1992 and has resulted in 679 widespread outages since 2003.

The president’s report is addressing a topic that has been inadequately discussed in the national dialogue surrounding grid modernization—protecting the nation’s grid with vegetation management. For example, the 2012 Department of Energy action plan for the nation’s distribution systems does not address vegetation management (DOE GTT Workshop 2012). The recent federal report, as well as some of the references used to support its arguments, does discuss vegetation management. This national awareness of UVM should continue and intersect with the many other discussions pertaining to the future of one of the most important of natural resources—vegetation.

The new normal of climate change will require more than what we originally planned for grid modernization, but it is not clear what or how much should be done. The federal government has included UVM as necessary for building resilience and as part of the solution for restoration from natural disasters. However, there is little guidance as to how UVM should be improved to protect the grid. The report identifies many of the grid modernization components that will increase resiliency, but it does not identify high tech or “smart” forestry solutions waiting to be implemented. The report contains several references to a congressional research study performed in 2012. This study (Campbell 2012) recommends the electric reliability organization (ERO) become the central policy maker for distribution reliability and create a national law mandating minimum standards for vegetation management around distribution lines. Consistent scheduling and mandatory standards, which have been successful for transmission, are cited as possible ways to improve the resiliency of the distribution systems.

The president’s report identifies six priorities for building grid resilience in America. Although the report does not detail how to revise UVM programs to improve resiliency, the following interpretation provides a roadmap for each priority as it pertains to UVM program improvements:

1. Manage the risk of hazards to people, and manage the expectations people have concerning grid interruptions.

The president’s report cites academic studies that have found storm-related outages to comprise between 44 and 78 percent of all interruptions. Campbell (2012) combined the data of several reports and estimated the annual cost of stormrelated interruptions to be between $25 and $70 billion. While the public has to be educated about smart grid benefits, grid resiliency costs, and what to expect during storm response, they also have to be educated and agree on appropriate UVM to improve grid resiliency and storm restoration.

2. Cost-effective strengthening through “adequate vegetation management programs.”

It may require minimum enforceable UVM national standards for distribution and sub-transmission facilities similar to the current enforceable North American standards for transmission.

3. Increase system flexibility and robustness.

This can be achieved with smart grid features and will improve system resiliency. Success will be contingent in part upon the ability of the UVM industry to protect the functionality of the grid before storms occur and upon how quickly UVM efforts can be modified to meet changing needs and unfolding situations. When key grid functions are protected during extreme weather events, restoration will be safer and faster.

4. Increase visualization and situational awareness.

Automated pinpointing of trouble locations will expedite recovery from storms. If utilities can quickly assess faults through smart meters and sensors and deploy professional UVM storm assessors who quantify and document tree-damaged facilities and triage needs, then the appropriate resources can be quickly deployed. This is where UVM-built resiliency, grid modernization, smart grid, and rapid deployment of restoration resources can intersect to provide a return on preventative investments and reverse the burgeoning societal costs of storm damage.

5. Deploy advanced control capabilities through automated switching and rapid isolation of trouble spots.

EPB of Chattanooga is cited as an example of where automated switching during a recent windstorm reduced outages by 50 percent. The power of this technology is also dependent on protection from vegetation failures and the ability for UVM to adapt to smart grid technology.

6. Availability of critical components and software systems requires risk prioritized mutual assistance planning that improves overall restoration success.

Work management software systems are needed to facilitate planning, decision making and UVM actions prior to storms and during storms. Data analysis is employed to facilitate reliabilitycentered maintenance of key distribution facilities, such as transformers. Data collection, data management, and analysis are needed to guide the actions that ensure each of the previous five priorities is addressed.


The collection, management, and analysis of standard units of UVM data, followed with the appropriate actions, will achieve the above resiliency priorities. Each priority as it relates to UVM can be addressed with the following actions:

• Reduce risk of hazards to people and manage customer expectations through quantification of risks. This will ensure proper UVM can be performed.

• Adopt distribution and sub-transmission UVM standards applicable to all utilities—private and public.

• Adapt UVM programs to enhance the operability of flexible smart grids.

• Develop storm assessment and response strategies to integrate prevention, preparation, and restoration.

• Protect the grid functions, as well as the grid structure.

• Provide a historical database of UVM documentation that supports rational UVM activities and associated grid resiliency

Other Industry


Making New Discoveries in the Field

On a hot July day under a Liberty Utilities’ electric transmission right-of-way, Chet Ellis, a senior consulting utility forester with CNUC, stumbled upon a couple of unidentified plant species. Working on Liberties’ ROW Habitat Program, it was Chet’s job to inventory plant species under the right-of-way for the utility. Unclear on a few species he […]

Industry Safety

Crisis Management: A Primer

By Regional Supervisor Todd Walker A Crisis Defined We started the hike early on a beautiful, crisp spring day in Southern California, but clouds had been slowly building throughout the morning. By noon, a gray haze had engulfed the trail on our ascent to Mt. San Antonio summit, as if curtains had been drawn over […]

Industry Training + Development

Growing Inclusion in UVM

By Supervisor of Research and Development Sarah Lilley Five years ago, I started my career in utility arboriculture as a consulting utility forester. Within the first two weeks, I called my supervisor and asked what the policy was for responding to harassment from the public while out patrolling. It was baffling to me why passersby […]