January 2024 | Point of View

Strengthening utility grid resilience for growing climate disaster risks

It’s a matter of when—not if—extreme weather events will occur next; make sure your power grid is ready

Strengthening utility grid resilience for growing climate disaster risks

Natural disasters aren’t going away—and current climate trends support an intensification of extreme weather events in both frequency and impact across the geographical landscape. Over the past five years, the U.S. has experienced an average of $18 billion in climate disasters per year. The importance of fortifying critical electric grid infrastructure is paramount to withstanding the potentially devastating impacts of climate-induced natural disasters.

Grid resiliency is constantly challenged by the unpredictability of the environment.

Utilities must be prepared to implement effective post-disaster emergency responses and damage assessment strategies. These strategies help identify deviations from the normal condition of their assets—allowing for efficient repair, replacement, and reinforcement against natural disasters and climate-related impacts.

Getting grid infrastructure back online 

Utilities prioritize the deployment of post-disaster resources based on several factors to ensure an efficient and effective response. This process involves a combination of strategic planning, risk assessment, and on-the-ground evaluations or damage assessments.  

Damage assessments are part of a utility’s emergency response plan (ERP) and are used to evaluate the extent of infrastructure damage and determine the necessary steps for recovery. These assessments are crucial for effectively planning and prioritizing the deployment of resources, laying the groundwork for recovery efforts not only to repair but fortify grid infrastructure against the next event. 

Successful execution is paramount, with post-disaster damage assessments by utilities informing: 

  • Safety hazards and risks associated with damaged infrastructure
  • Strategic allocation of resources, ensuring that personnel, equipment, and materials are deployed where they’re needed most
  • Understanding the extent of damage in different areas so utilities can prioritize the restoration of critical infrastructure and services; this may involve giving higher priority to areas with significant population density, critical facilities, or strategic nodes in the utility network
  • The time required to restore services fully; this information is valuable for setting realistic expectations for both emergency responders and the affected community and assists in communicating recovery timelines to the public
  • The types of resources needed for restoration efforts; this includes identifying the specific equipment, materials, and skilled personnel required to repair or replace damaged infrastructure
  • Coordination with emergency management agencies at the local, state, and federal level to provide emergency services
  • Transparent communication with government officials, regulatory bodies, and the public; clear communication about the status of infrastructure damage and recovery efforts is essential for building trust and managing expectations
  • Required documentation for filing insurance claims and requesting financial assistance from government agencies or other sources; accurate assessments support the financial aspects of the recovery process

Baselining and preliminary assessment  

Immediately after a disaster, utilities may conduct a preliminary assessment to identify safety hazards and determine the overall impact on infrastructure—helping to mobilize resources and initiate response efforts.  

The extent to which a utility knows the condition and health of its infrastructure is critical in laying the foundation for restoration efforts in the aftermath of a disaster event. A thorough understanding of the existing condition of operational assets allows utilities to effectively deploy resources in time sensitive situations. 

Structural and operational uncertainty within a grid system compromises the ability to efficiently repair damages and link those damages claimed to the event for federal reimbursement. Whether the source is scheduled maintenance, cadenced walkdowns, aerial investigations, or ancillary initiatives that capture infrastructural conditions, the tools and templates utilized to secure baseline data should be standardized within the utility. Users tasked with acquiring baseline condition data must be adequately trained in the tools and techniques for optimal data capture. Their findings set the stage to successfully execute damage assessment strategies and adeptly repair across the impact zone when the time comes.  

Having a well-structured damage assessment strategy that can be quickly activated after a disaster event—and one that builds upon a baseline condition—is crucial for being proactive when unexpected events occur. At the forefront, resources should be ready to mobilize ahead of the event through established master service agreements (MSAs) and mutual aid agreements (MAAs) due to the scale of effort disaster response necessitates. Primed service contracts allow utilities to hedge against resource constraints within sensitive response timeframes. 

Clear communication of the objective is driven by the ERP, guiding a targeted approach, and prioritized sequence of activities. Assessors must understand the scope in detail and galvanize around the goal of collecting exhaustive evidence that reveals the full extent of the damage profile. Tools and requisite training should be developed to provide assessors with the capacity to collect valuable information and execute based on a defined criteria for complete and detailed damage assessments.

Setting expectations and accountability  

A thorough and effective damage assessment process, from data collection to documentation, is essential for initiating structural repairs, procuring materials, and securing federal funding for the work.  By minimizing the need for repeated assessments, utilities can expedite the design and repair process. Material inventory may be challenged due to the scale of response required, and repair demand requiring a depletion of material not originally earmarked for emergency scenarios can significantly strain utility operations amid challenges in the global supply chain. 

The strategy should prioritize the acquisition of high-quality damage assessment data. This involves implementing a systematic and thorough approach to collecting information about the extent of damage. The emphasis should be on efficiency to reduce the strain on both time and resources during subsequent stages. Collecting data will serve as a foundation for various critical activities, including engineering designs, material procurement, construction planning, and facilitating the reimbursement process from federal agencies. The key is to develop and execute a well-structured plan that ensures the quality and accuracy of the damage assessment data, streamlining the overall workflow and optimizing resource utilization throughout the entire project lifecycle.  

The utility’s ERP should house a formalized damage assessment companion guide, verified by engineering and construction teams and tailored to utility specific assets and territory topography to support assessors. Accountability drives sustaining quality data capture, and constant monitoring of assessment progress allows for feedback to be communicated from engineering to the assessors in the field and provides visibility to various stakeholders in the recovery operation.

Optimizing data collection and analysis 

Successfully collecting field data materializes through the combination of two mechanisms: the user and the acquisition tool. Utilities should have an assessment tool specific to their assets that serves as a repository for imagery and data. The level of granularity and specificity regarding content within the tool should be a marriage between information clarity and value as well as user applicability. Achieving the right content minimizes assessors having to revisit asset locations to obtain the necessary intel for recovery efforts. There’s no such thing as too much detail—but if the if the tool lacks user friendliness or sufficient training material, the amount of detail it can collect is negated. 

Quality damage assessment data exhibits detailed damage descriptions, clear imagery, location coordinates, structural configuration designations, material specifications, and standards information. This information is significant for analysis, planning, and communication with relevant stakeholders. The collected data is analyzed to prioritize restoration efforts and fuel design. This involves evaluating the criticality of different assets, estimating repair times, and identifying dependencies within the utility network. 

On the reporting front, utilities leverage damage assessment data to provide regular updates on the recovery progress to stakeholders, including internal government agencies, emergency responders, and the public. Transparent communication is essential for building trust and managing expectations.  

Exporting, post-processing, and packaging assessment data is pivotal to ensure expediency. The acquisition tool should seamlessly export desired fields in a digestible format to instantaneously leverage for repair packages, project status reporting, FEMA Project Formulation packages, and FEMA site inspections. To support resourceful data collection, utilities must manage and maintain a robust asset specific document repository system housing individual damage assessment reports and other documentation tied to work on the asset for reference and records. Consistency with data begins before the event. Given the impact scale uncertainty of natural disasters, it’s too late for utilities to be reactive concerning the tools utilized to capture and store critical information.


Damage assessments are an indispensable component of the infrastructure recovery process, directing concentrated repair efforts following an event and providing insight into where infrastructure needs to increase resiliency against future impact. 

Detailed baselining, streamlined strategy, and intelligent data collection enable robust analysis of response trends, empowering utilities to pinpoint vulnerabilities in their network and design infrastructure to withstand challenges proactively rather than reactively. Through leveraging baseline and damage assessment data combined with advanced analytical analysis utilities can design smarter, reducing future impact and modernizing the grid system to face new climate threats. 

The uncertainty surrounding climate change and observed increase in frequency and severity of disaster events is driving proactive investments to fortify our infrastructure to withstand impact on a high level. Utilities must be ready to dedicate concentrated efforts deliberated and defined in a disaster response playbook.

In a world of evolving climate conditions, proactive infrastructure preparation is not just a choice—it's an imperative to safeguard the future of our planet and the well-being of its inhabitants.

As the demand for power continues to grow, reliable and resilient power delivery infrastructure must be a parallel reality achieved from a thorough understanding of current limitations in response to natural load cases and actions to close the gap.

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