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The Growing Weather Needs of the Utility Industry

May 14, 2018

Since the dawn of electricity, utility companies have been battling the weather. Falling trees due to wind and heavy ice or snow can topple electrical powerlines. Heavy rainfall and subsequent river-rise can flood substations. In seasons of severe weather, it’s common for power outages to affect thousands or even millions of people.

Last year’s Hurricane Maria effectively destroyed Puerto Rico’s power grid, leaving millions without power for months. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, more than two million people were without power in New York. The infamous “Snowpacalypse” storm of 2009 created power outages in areas from West Virginia to the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. Utility companies can only prepare for and expect these weather events — relying on skilled meteorologists to provide as much detail and warning as possible within daily weather forecast bulletins and alerts.

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Temperature, pressure and humidity all impact the transmission of electricity. With help from meteorologists, modern techniques can improve the amount of electricity passing through the line.

How Weather Affects the Renewable Energy Industry

Utility companies don’t just rely on weather forecasting for severe weather instances, but for building purposes as well. For example, a proposed wind farm focused on generating renewable energy needs to scout a location that will provide consistent wind. The wind farm operator also needs to take severe weather like lightning, hail, ice and extreme winds into consideration, to avoid damaging the wind turbines. Approximately 65% of wind turbines in North America reside in areas where snow and icing conditions can occur. Similarly, solar farm operators need to choose a location without dense cloud-cover or fog, which can absorb the sun’s rays, or ice, snow or dust, which coats panels, making them ineffective.

These companies rely on continuous communication with meteorologists to avoid turbine or panel damage as well as obtain accurate, long-range forecasts of weather on a quarterly or annual basis. With improvements in technology, meteorologists can now quickly compare how storms have impacted a utility company in the past and produce a more accurate forecast that will mitigate damage and speed recovery. Meteorologists can also help utility companies estimate potential damage to assets, pre-position repair crews to damage-likely areas, and even help with staffing and overtime decisions.

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Weather poses unique challenges to the solar farm operator, including soil erosion from wind, drought or floods.

More and more, utility companies are incorporating these types of renewable energy solutions into their service offerings. Due to this increase, an emerging question is how best to transmit the electricity, especially amid increases in temperature due to sunshine and changes in the atmosphere, which can decrease the capacity of transmission.

In the past, monitoring and forecasting these conditions for every mile of transmission line proved to be a Herculean task. But today, it’s possible for meteorologists to not only monitor, but predict the conditions that will diminish or improve transmission capacity. When the right atmospheric conditions prevail, each segment of powerline can be exploited to its fullest potential, delivering the maximum amount of electricity where and when it’s needed most.

While severe weather will continue to be an unavoidable obstacle for utility companies, new ways of generating electricity are relying more and more on meteorology. Exciting developments within technology are increasing the complexity and accuracy of forecasts — allowing Meteorologists to help utility companies within renewable energy to choose locations, become more efficient and recover after severe weather.