How Does Aging Infrastructure Affect Utility Companies?

Utility infrastructure powers every single aspect of daily life. From the internet you are using to read this article to keeping food safe, electricity is an integral part of living.

Given the importance of utility infrastructure, it is surprising that many of the pieces of equipment in the United States are decades old. This aging of equipment is having an impact on utility companies and could lead to severe problems down the line.

Storm Impact Analytics knows that the age and condition of infrastructure directly affect its power restoration time. That is why its data modeling includes weather intelligence and other data to create actionable insights that you can rely upon.

This article will first outline the growing problem of aging infrastructure and how it affects utilities. It will then examine how utilities are preparing their systems and what they can do to weather the storm successfully.


Transmission poles

Aging utility infrastructure – a growing problem

In 2015, the US Department of Energy reported that:

  • 70% of power transformers are 25+ years old
  • 60% of circuit breakers are 30+ years old
  • 70% of transmission lines are 25+ years old

Billions of dollars have been spent since then on capital investments. In fact, investment in overhead poles, wires, devices, and other fixtures rose by 69% over the past decade. Likewise, in that same period, spending on station equipment increased by 35%. In fact, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was recently passed in the United States to address, amongst other things, energy infrastructure.

Clearly, the industry and regulators have taken note that infrastructure is a priority. However, there is still a sizable gap between what has been upgraded and what needs to be done.

Experts agree that the problem will only become worse. If current trends continue, the United States will be facing a $208 billion shortfall by 2029. The long-term impacts cannot be underestimated. 


Iced transformer power pole

Impact of aging utility infrastructure

Below are two ways in which older fixtures and equipment are affecting utility companies. 


Renewable energy – a wasted opportunity

Renewable energy is the future of electricity, and many moves are being made to make it more accessible to homeowners and businesses. However, while renewable energy sources can produce much more electricity, the infrastructure required to use that energy is simply not in place.

Homeowners have spent tens of thousands of dollars on solar panels and accompanying equipment. However, once installation has been completed, they find that they are nothing more than ornamental when their local utility does not have the capacity to handle the energy being produced.

The current infrastructure was built decades ago on the principle that electricity went in one direction – from the grid to the consumer. Renewable energy provides a means for homes and businesses to supply power to the grid. However, due to aging infrastructure, utilities are unable to tap into these powerful resources.


Inability to handle increased outages

Heat waves, forest fires, hurricanes, flooding, and ice storms are becoming increasingly common because of climate change. In addition, because of these changing weather conditions, power outages are becoming increasingly common. Climate Central reported a 67% increase in major power outages caused by weather events over the past 20 years.

Not only are more weather events causing power outages, but the results are also becoming more serious. For example, in August 2021, Hurricane Isaias resulted in lost power for millions of customers across the Northeast. Many were without electricity for a week.

Weather is a considerable threat to utility infrastructure because most of it is above-ground. Utility poles, power lines, and transformers are vulnerable to damage from hail, ice, and heavy rain because they are exposed to these elements.

However, even underground fixtures are at risk. This was clearly seen during Hurricane Harvey, when underground power lines were affected by flooding, resulting in lost power in Texas.


Fallen power pole

System hardening strategies

There are many strategies that utilities use to combat the challenge of having an aging infrastructure. For example, preventive maintenance is being prescribed to reduce potential damage. This maintenance can include tree removal, tree trimming, and exercising switching equipment.

It can also involve the materials used. By way of example, wooden poles may not be durable enough to withstand the pressure of extreme weather. As a result, many utilities are replacing their wooden poles with ones made of steel that can stand firm against high wind speeds.

As noted, underground distribution lines are less susceptible to damage, as they are protected against high winds and ice. Therefore, utilities are moving their lines underground in an attempt to protect their equipment.

However, the challenge is the cost of these system hardening strategies. For example, moving overhead power lines underground is estimated to cost up to $12 million per mile in urban areas. 

The rate of acceleration in capital costs makes it unlikely that consumers will accept the kind of bill increase that utility companies would need to implement to cover large-scale modernization. Therefore, fast, sweeping changes are not feasible or realistic, especially for public utilities.


Facing the storm

While a utility may not avoid a power outage, it can drastically cut its time to restore power by employing electrical system hardening strategies.

One utility suffered widespread damage during a hurricane in 2005, and the area lost power for several weeks. However, that same area was struck again in 2018 after it had employed some of these strategies. The result? Power was restored within several days.

There is another way to reduce your power restoration time, and that is by having the correct data and operational intelligence.

The more information that you are powered with before a storm hits directly impacts how you respond to it. You can book mutual assistance before it becomes competitive. Equipment can be deployed more quickly, and you can focus your efforts on the areas likely to be hit the hardest.,

However, not all data is created equal. That is why Storm Impact Analytics gives you a comprehensive picture of what weather is coming your way and how it will impact your utility.

By combining highly reliable weather intelligence with information about your specific utility, Storm Impact Analytics gives you actionable insights so that you can make decisions with confidence. To ensure accurate predictions, it will use your utility asset records, vegetation and tree-trimming schedules, and other pertinent information.

Regardless of the age of your infrastructure, find out how Storm Impact Analytics can power up your system to face the storm.