Improving energy infrastructure resilience

Mott MacDonald recently delivered research in collaboration with EDF Energy and the Met Office for the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) to identify how natural hazards can be characterised to help improve energy system infrastructure design. Here, Sun Yan Evans - technical director at Mott MacDonald - discusses some of the key lessons learned.

Improving energy infrastructure resilience

Recent weather disasters serve as a stark reminder that natural hazards such as extreme wind, flooding and hail can cause a wave of damage and destruction to various types of infrastructure across the energy system. Therefore, it is important that stakeholders within the industry have a shared understanding of the risks and impacts associated with natural hazards to ensure people and infrastructure are protected.

While many natural hazards can impact infrastructure, there is a varying degree of understanding surrounding each specific hazard. Both coastal flooding and extreme rainfall have been widely recorded and many people know about their impact. Space weather and marine biological fouling – the accumulation of microorganisms on wetted surfaces – also pose a risk but there is less research into their impact.

There was clearly a need for research into the characteristics of natural hazards in a consistent way. That’s why Mott MacDonald, EDF Energy and The Met Office worked together to provide a set of technical volumes and case studies for the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) to fill this gap, titled ‘Enabling Resilient UK Energy Infrastructure: Natural Hazard Characterisation’. Engineers will use this when considering how to protect infrastructure against a variety of hazards.

After all, recent weather disasters have shown the damaging effect they can have on infrastructure. In 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 centred 130km off the east coast of Japan triggered a 15m tsunami which struck the Fukushima nuclear plant. This disabled the plant’s power supply and cooling systems of three of the nuclear reactors, leading to a nuclear disaster. The reactors were robust when initially hit by the earthquake but vulnerable to the tsunami that was triggered. The tsunami led to 19,000 deaths and caused significant damage to coastal ports and towns with over a million buildings destroyed in its path.

This disaster highlighted not only the impact that individual hazards can have on infrastructure but also how the combination of various natural hazards can lead to more severe impacts than if hazards had occurred separately. The Fukushima disaster led to a worldwide safety review of nuclear stations with new protection systems, safety equipment and protocols instituted to prevent such severe consequences in the future.

 

The impact of storms

In the UK, some of the most damaging natural hazard events in recent times have been caused by storms. A sequence of storms struck the UK in December 2013 leading to severe storms in multiple areas. Several hundred homes on the east coast of England required evacuation, while the Thames Barrier was closed to protect London from the effects of this event. Extreme wind speeds across Scotland forced the closure of the rail network and left approximately 100,000 homes without power.

It is no surprise that flooding is the second most serious natural hazard risk for the UK following the potential for a flu epidemic, with over five million properties at risk in England alone. As well as affecting properties, flooding can damage national critical infrastructure such as electricity power supply, leading to a cascade failure in other sectors. Therefore, understanding the flood risk now and in the future, and building infrastructure with resilience to flooding, is critical to the sustainability of the UK and for society’s ability to continue going about daily life without disruption, economic damage and environmental cost.

The risks associated with natural hazards have become heightened in recent years with the potential impacts of climate change on the environment. The impact of climate change is likely to drive alterations in the way that energy is used. Climate change is also expected to influence the frequency and intensity of natural hazards which could impact the production and distribution of energy. Major shifts in the UK energy system are expected to occur soon, with pre-existing energy infrastructure reaching end of life. Future infrastructure design is being driven by economics, innovation and social acceptability. These changes mean that a shared understanding of the risks and impacts climate change can have on natural hazards is crucial.

It is essential that the UK energy system changes to not only become more resilient, but also to deliver decarbonisation and efficiency improvements. Indeed, it is expected that the country’s existing energy infrastructure will be completely overhauled or replaced by 2050 as it continues to evolve to take advantage of new technologies and innovations that could provide cleaner and green energy solutions. This will likely have a greater reliance on system integration and computing technology. As it evolves, it is crucial that the UK’s energy infrastructure meets future needs with adequate resilience to the impact of natural hazards.

 

Planning and design

The process of characterisation of natural hazards can be used within safety analysis and operation of different infrastructure. More specifically, it can be focused on the initial planning, design and build of infrastructure and adaptation over time to account for new hazards and the effects of climate change. During the initial planning, design and build of any infrastructure it is important to characterise the impact that natural hazards may have on safety and operations. Decisions need to be made as to what level of protection is going to be provided against natural hazards and whether there are any hazards that can be screened out, for being either very unlikely to occur, or very unlikely to impact upon the infrastructure under consideration. A rigorous characterisation of natural hazards ensures that these decisions are robust and provide the level of protection that they should.

This will depend on the asset, its vulnerability to the natural hazard, and the rarity of the natural hazard under consideration. Further to these considerations, the potential for future adaptation also needs to be taken into account should the magnitude of the frequency of the natural hazard alter, such as increasing sea levels leading to a higher probability of coastal flooding.

Natural hazard characterisation is not only important for new build infrastructure projects. Existing energy infrastructure assets also require approaches for natural hazard characterisation to ensure that they are robust to any weather disasters that may strike. However, they pose a slightly different challenge as many of these projects were built using earlier techniques for characterising natural hazards that have since been supplanted. Many of these did not take climate change into consideration. As such, the process of periodic safety review is especially important for ageing infrastructure. 

Resilience is the capability to recover quickly from difficulties. The UK energy infrastructure, as it transitions to a low carbon, efficient and integrated system, needs to maintain this capability central to its development. Understanding, characterising and mitigating the impacts of natural hazards are more important than ever to enable resilient UK energy infrastructure that is fit for the future.

 

Find out more about the research provided by Mott MacDonald, The Met Office and EDF Energy, here: https://www.icheme.org/knowledge/natural-hazards/


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