3 Lessons Energy Companies Must Learn From the Texas Winter Storm

Locusview Team
April, 14th 2021 | 4 min read

by Locusview Team

In February, a record-breaking winter storm hit the southern United States with a powerful force, knocking out electric lines, power stations, and water pumping stations. In Texas, a state known for sweltering summers with well-prepared systems in place to manage overheating, the electric grid was unable to withstand a surge of demand resulting from unusually frigid temperatures.

The numbers were staggering:

  • 3 million people lost power
  • 8 million people without safe drinking water
  • More than 100 lives lost due to hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning

Consumers and government leaders looked for answers: How could this have happened? Were city officials unaware of the magnitude of the coming storm? Why was the electrical grid unable to cope with consumer demand?

The physical damage, economic impact, and human toll is shining a light on the critical importance of infrastructure stability. Here are the top 3 takeaways from the Texas winter blast and lessons in how energy leaders can better prepare for the future.

1. Empower Distributed Energy

What Are Distributed Energy Resources?

For years, energy was typically generated at large power stations, transmitted to substations, and then distributed through a centralized grid connected to private homes and businesses.

But this standard method of energy distribution began changing over the last 20 years. Clean energy and green technology have become a priority for governments and consumers, who are searching for more reliable, efficient, and environmentally-friendly energy solutions.

In recent years, advanced technological changes have enabled the proliferation of Distributed Energy Resources (DER) and renewable power generation. These DERs, such as solar and wind farms and residential rooftop PV, are changing the way energy is generated, paid for, and consumed.

DERs for Improved Reliability

Unstable power is something millions of consumers can ill afford, especially in lower income neighborhoods. When energy supplies become unstable - particularly in cases of extreme weather - DERs help balance the electrical grid by deploying alternate energy sources or lowering demand by self-consuming.

Electric utilities need better tools to monitor consumer demand and minimize rising costs. During peak usage periods, backup power generation becomes more costly. Smart meters allow consumers to reduce their energy use, which not only helps balance the grid, but can also lower their electricity bills. Consumers who have rooftop solar panels or other energy storage systems can receive compensation from their electric company for selling power back to the grid, creating more prosumers (consumers who are also producers) and increasing affordability. 

From an economic standpoint, DERs can alleviate pressure on utilities to build more power stations, ultimately reducing long-term costs. According to IRENA (The International Renewable Energy Agency), implementing DERs can achieve $1.3 billion in cost savings and reduce peak demand by 60% through smart energy management. With the need to reduce costs a key focus for state governments, DERs are an essential component of improving energy efficiency and long-term cost savings.

However, DERs can be incorporated into the grid only where there are no safety threats or reliability issues. In most cases, to safely integrate DERs onto the network, grid modernization is necessary.

2. Invest in Grid Modernization

What is Grid Modernization?

Managing electrical grids and networks comes at a cost of billions of dollars per year. Over time, continuous repair work on aging infrastructures becomes less cost-effective than updating them with new components and modern technologies, known as grid modernization.

An increasing number of utilities are investing significant capital and resources into modernizing their grids. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that US electric utilities spend more than $50 billion each year on electric distribution systems.

The advent of IoT devices, smart sensors, and electric vehicles requires an advanced, sophisticated electrical grid to provide continuous power and manage it intelligently. In cases of extreme weather, utility leaders must ensure that their electric infrastructure is well-equipped to withstand it and to incorporate technologies that can monitor and control sudden surges of demand.

This is what modernizing the grid - or grid modernization - is all about.

The US Department of Energy states how “Modernizing the grid to make it “smarter” and more resilient through the use of cutting-edge technologies...can greatly reduce the frequency and duration of power outages, reduce storm impacts, and restore service faster when outages occur”.

This is why Advanced Distribution Management Systems (ADMS) has become a key component of grid modernization. By implementing ADMS, electric utilities can improve efficiency and provide more reliable power to consumers while potentially drawing less power from generation.

However, implementing both DERs and ADMS requires advanced technologies with high data accuracy and improved data governance. Utilities need a Digital Twin of their network to realize the value promised by ADMS and DERs. Since data originates in the field during construction, utilities should create their Digital Twin during construction using advanced digital solutions and sensors.

This is why Digital Construction Management (DCM) is critical. Paper-based methods are still being used for data collection during construction but are prone to human error and inaccuracy. The result might be a wide gap between the field and systems of record which impairs the fidelity of the data and the ADMS relying on it.

Only by incorporating Digital Construction solutions into the construction workflow can utilities create a high-fidelity Digital Twin good enough to drive an ADMS and properly incorporate DERs.

3. Optimize Emergency Repairs

While millions of Texans suffered through sub freezing conditions, field crews were out in the icy temperatures making critical repairs.

One of the biggest challenges for emergency crews is pinpointing the exact location of assets and performing repairs quickly and safely. Without the accurate data of a Digital Twin, time can be wasted simply locating assets in the field and ensuring crews have the proper equipment and materials to perform repairs of lengthy outages.

In cases of extreme weather, critical repair delays can become a matter of life and death for consumers.

However, utilities put their Digital Twin at risk when foreign crews perform emergency construction and the priority is speedy restoration rather than data quality. With data quality and governance secondary, utilities typically need to perform costly field inventory data collection activities after the storm to shore up their data and fill the holes in the Digital Twin.

"This is why Digital Construction Management (DCM) is critical. Paper-based methods are still being used for data collection during construction but are prone to human error and inaccuracy. The result might be a wide gap between the field and systems of record which impairs the fidelity of the data and the ADMS relying on it. Only by incorporating Digital Construction solutions into the construction workflow can utilities create a high-fidelity Digital Twin good enough to drive an ADMS and properly incorporate DERs."

To solve this problem, utilities are increasingly turning to technology companies to provide them with accurate, timely data and easy-to-use solutions. By capturing data during emergency reconstruction with high accuracy GPS receivers and barcode scanners, utilities and their foreign crews can easily locate their assets, quickly and safely perform repairs, all while maintaining the integrity of their Digital Twin.

Advanced technology solutions like Locusview help utility leaders seamlessly create a Digital Twin during construction and reconstruction work, maintaining data integrity throughout the entire process. By replacing manual, paper-based processes with digital as-builting, utilities capture real-time information and gain crucial insights into their networks for a long-term, cost-effective, and state-of-the-art digital solution.