The European power system is facing unprecedented challenges. COVID-19 challenged how staff and systems worked together and the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked an unprecedented energy crisis across Europe, which endangered European countries' security of supply.
Meanwhile, the climate clock keeps ticking. The world is well on its way to +1.5°C by 2030. Each season brings further proof that climate change is a key driver behind more frequent extreme weather events. Just last month the world recorded the hottest July on record which reached a global average temperature of 0.72°C warmer than the 1991-2020 average.
Despite the shifting balance of power, increasing geopolitical uncertainties and natural disasters, the show, or rather, the flow must go on. In an increasingly interconnected and technologically driven world, the availability of reliable and consistent energy has become a cornerstone of modern society. From powering our homes and industries to supporting critical infrastructure and essential services, energy plays a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our daily lives.
This is why strengthening the resilience of our energy system vis-à-vis climate, cyber and military threats must become a priority today.
What does energy resilience mean?
Cornell University defines energy resilience as “the ability to avoid, prepare for, minimise, adapt to, and recover from anticipated and unanticipated energy disruptions in order to ensure energy availability and reliability.” It means maintaining a consistent supply of energy despite disruptions, whether they stem from natural disasters, cyberattacks, geopolitical tensions, or other unforeseen circumstances.
Why is energy resilience important?
As society will increasingly rely on electricity, electricity must be increasingly reliable.
Energy resilience reduces the vulnerability of communities to various threats, including extreme weather events, cyberattacks, and geopolitical tensions. By preparing for potential disruptions, industry can ensure that electricity keeps flowing even in challenging circumstances.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects an increase in extreme heat, fire weather, heavy precipitation, pluvial flooding, sea level rise, coastal flooding and severe windstorms across all of Europe, with only Northern Europe being spared fire weather. Droughts are expected to increase in the Mediterranean and Western & Central Europe. Meanwhile, heavy precipitation, mean precipitation and pluvial flooding are expected to increase across Northern Europe.
Mitigation measures will need to be deployed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. How fast we can reduce GHG emissions will also influence the level of global warming impacts experienced in the future. Yet, mitigation alone will not be able to prevent all impacts of climate change, rendering adaptation – as in the ability to adapt to changing weather patterns - inevitable.
A reliable energy supply is essential for a business to operate smoothly. Energy disruptions can lead to production stoppages, financial losses, and disruptions in supply chains. Energy resilience can minimise these risks through prevention and recovery measures, thereby supporting economic stability and growth.
Power outages caused by disasters can impact vulnerable populations the hardest. Energy resilience ensures that essential services, like heating, cooling, and medical facilities, are available to everyone, safeguarding public health and well-being.
How does energy resilience work?
Energy resilience involves a combination of strategies and measures aimed at minimising vulnerabilities and enhancing the ability to respond to disruptions. Several key principles underlie its functioning:
Diverse Energy Sources
Relying on a single energy source makes a system vulnerable to supply disruptions. Energy resilience promotes diversification, incorporating a mix of sources such as low-carbon baseload generation, renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro), and storage technologies (batteries, pumped hydro) to ensure a continuous power supply.
Decentralised Energy Generation
A centralised energy system is more susceptible to wide-scale failures. Distributed energy resources, like solar panels on rooftops, empower local communities to generate their own power, reducing dependency on a single source and minimising the impact of outages.
Energy storage technologies play a pivotal role in energy resilience. Batteries, pumped hydro, and other storage systems store excess energy during periods of low demand and release it when demand surges or during disruptions, bridging the gap between supply and demand.
Smart grids incorporate advanced monitoring, communication, and control technologies to manage energy distribution efficiently. They enable real-time adjustments, rerouting energy flows to areas in need, and facilitating a more rapid recovery from disruptions.
Flexibility and Demand Response
Energy resilience involves demand response programs where consumers are incentivised to voluntarily reduce energy usage during peak demand periods. This helps to balance the energy load and prevents system overload during times of stress.
What are the major threats to Europe’s energy system today?
As European countries emerge from last year’s energy crisis, several challenges to the energy transition and the overall security of our energy system remain.
Everybody has done a fire drill but who has done a cybersecurity exercise simulation?
The rise of distributed energy resources (DERs) like solar PVs, batteries, heat pumps and electric vehicles (EVs) will likely raise the risk of cyber-attacks as the surface area for attack increases massively. These new distributed devices represent an entry point into a data stream that feeds the energy system. As the number of such entry points increases, so does the risk that malicious actors start manipulating the data generated by such devices.
“The energy industry needs additional protection against these very sophisticated cyber-attacks. With hyper-connectivity and dynamic [electricity] networks, the security solutions currently deployed are just not good enough.”
– says Florian Kolb Chief Commercial Officer & General Manager Energy at Intertrust Technologies during the Power Summit session on cyber security.
That’s why policymakers are working together with the industry to modernise network codes, a set of rules agreed by experts to rapidly exchange data and perform risk assessments at ease when operating cross-border electricity flow. Key to the success of such codes is a closer collaboration among all relevant actors in the energy ecosystem, including system operators, utilities and technology providers to raise the overall level of cybersecurity preparedness.
As the speed at which new security technologies are introduced is high, more people are needed to properly follow what’s going on.
“At EU level, we want to develop a baseline of careers and skills that will be needed by taking stock of what we already have in terms of career paths and training, identifying the gaps existing today in the market and making them available to the citizens” – says Felipe Castro Policy officer at the European Commission.
Physical and military threats
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a powerful wake-up call for Europe on the need to strengthen its security of supply vis-à-vis potential physical and military threats.
The war caused unprecedented damage to Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure. Direct physical damage included the destruction of distribution grids which created the need to rapidly replace circuits and substations. Indirect damage consisted of the inability to source materials and spare parts for the operation and maintenance of electricity grids and thermal power generation.
Read more about the lessons learned from Ukraine in our article on security of supply.
Heat waves, wildfires, floods, and cold spells score new records every year and have a particularly high impact on the electricity value chain. As documented in our Resilience report, over the past decade, extreme weather events caused over €145 billion in economic losses across the EU.
As mentioned by Eurelectric’s Secretary General Kristian Ruby: “Adaptation to climate change and extreme weather has become a big challenge for power companies. Resilience is a growing component of utilities’ investment strategies and requires all actors to act together: utilities but also policymakers and other sectors which are critical during extreme weather events, such as telecommunications.”
All power assets are affected by extreme weather events, especially the electricity networks. Let’s find out how.
- Ice sleeves: One of the main threats to electricity lines is linked to snow and icing. Winter snowstorms can lead to ice sleeves on bare power line conductors. This can be a result of the interaction of various phenomena, including snowfall, low clouds, wind and rain on the bare conductors. “Wet snow” is particularly dangerous for overhead powerlines, as it can easily adhere to the external surface of the conductor.
- Heatwaves and wild fires: Heatwaves can affect underground cables, especially where a combination of variables coincide. Due to climate change there is a projected increase in days with drought, high average temperatures, and only a slight temperature variation between day and night.
Dehydration of the soil causes a reduction in its thermal transmittance. High ambient temperatures can cause the inversion of the thermal flow between buried cable, the ground and free air. At the same time, cables can experience increased loads due to increased air conditioning demand. The consequences on the underground network are an increase in the probability of hot spots in cable insulation and in joints, which can lead to isolation failure.
Heatwaves can also cause increased sagging of overhead lines and can cause transformers in substations to overheat at a lower-than-usual load level.
- Windstorms and Flooding: Diverse weather events can cause trees to fall on overhead power lines. In addition to rain, snow or strong wind, heavy storms and in some cases even small cyclones can cause trees to fall on overhead lines.
Floods impact the safe and secure operation of distribution system secondary substations, transformers, and underground cables. Indirect impacts of flooding include weakened pole and tower foundations, as well as causing dangerous rock falls and landslides.
How can we measure and quantify the resilience of our power system?
The System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), helps quantify power system reliability by measuring the total amount of time that an average customer experiences service interruption during the measurement period, typically a year.
Similarly, the System Average Interruption Frequency Index (SAIFI), measures the number of interruptions an average customer experiences during the measurement period. Typically, Major Event Days, such as storms, are excluded from reliability calculations as they constitute “force majeure”, however, there is no one accepted standard for interpreting what constitutes a Major Event Day.
How can we strengthen the resilience of our energy system with climate adaptation?
The power system already has a host of adaptation measures available for the management of climate hazards. These include physical hardening and uprating of networks, physical protection measures, additional water spill gates for hydropower dams, resizing of thermal and nuclear plant cooling systems, additional redundancy of grid design, preparedness planning, backup systems, and digital tools to enhance visibility and management of the energy system down to low power voltage levels.
Early detection and forecasting of extreme weather can improve a business’ ability to withstand them. Today, many early warning systems are used to identify weather events and give the public time to prepare. Several others are developed to predict events whose frequency and intensity are projected to increase, like extreme heat. These systems help people prepare for hazardous weather-related events.
When applied to the transmission and distribution sectors, a number of concrete solutions exemplify such adaptation efforts.
- Overhead Distribution Reinforcement: some of the most effective actions are relatively simple and straightforward, such as adding structural reinforcement to existing distribution lines using aerial cable, increasing the degree of insulation, increasing mechanical strength of conductors, cross-arms and insulators.
- Undergrounding of overhead lines: installing distribution lines underground takes them out of harm’s way of trees, cars, and most lightning strikes – these works must take account of flood risks as well as the related carbon footprint.
- Pole and Line Design: this entails the adoption of pole and line configurations less susceptible to damage from trees and falling limbs. It is important to better understand the way overhead systems fail and to use new technologies to ensure that the systems fail in a manner that minimises the restoration effort. Assessing overhead components and cross-arms, pole treatment options, as well as the effect of third-party components (telephone, cable television, fiber optic cables, etc.) is also needed. Adoption of techniques to reduce probability of conductors’ breakages due to ice sleeve overload (adoption of mechanical fuses) can be very useful;
- Vegetation management near overhead lines: Tree trimming and pruning is a fundamental practice for mitigating local distribution outages risk. Given the increasing demands for maintaining biodiversity, new forms of vegetation management near overhead lines must be devised, in conjunction with the stakeholders;
- Substation design: in areas with a high risk of flooding, civil works can be undertaken to protect substations, technologies can be adopted to make substations more waterproof, and less exposed sites can be selected.
- Remote control, grid automation and digitalisation: to prevent outages automated distribution grid components (e.g., switches/sectionalisers/reclosers, sensors) could automatically reconfigure supply restoration within few minutes. In this way it is possible to enact fault selection and so reduce the number of customers affected and the number of field operations in extreme conditions;
- Provision of alternative power network paths (network meshing, backfeeding for laterals with many customers, etc.) to reduce outage risk and increase redundancy of supply.
- Preparation of electricity networks for future connections of distributed energy resources (such as photovoltaic plants, wind farms & storage) and implement measures to use their flexibility to limit the effects of extreme weather events.
For more information download our full study The Coming Storm - Energy system resilience:
building a future proof power sector.