Recovering from disasters

IEC Standards provide the tools to enable countries to recover from disasters

From severe droughts to hurricanes and flooding, disasters appear more frequently and with a greater intensity than in the past. Recognizing the human and economic toll of these disasters caused by climate change, the United Nations has included climate action as one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Specifically, the UN calls for strengthening the resilience of infrastructure in the face of disasters. This is an area where the IEC already makes a significant contribution.

Street destroyed by a storm
Storms leave a path of destruction in their wake cutting off vital services (Photo: WikiImages from Pixabay)

The IEC takes a multi-pronged approach to climate action and how countries can recover following a disaster. It calls for the appropriate measures to be put in place that can increase infrastructure resilience against disasters, but also the tools for planning and recovery should a disaster strike. This is made possible by adopting IEC Standards and undertaking testing and certification.

Ready, set, resilience

Extreme weather events and disasters have had a detrimental impact on the delivery of electricity. Blackouts can affect millions of homes and last for hours or days, if not longer. Problems are further aggravated by blackouts affecting essential services that depend on electricity, such as medical care, sanitation and water management.

Resiliency refers to the characteristics of an electrical system to recover its operations. It is the ability to avoid or minimize disruptions to the grid after an incident including a disaster situation. This can be achieved by, for example, splitting networks into smaller circuits, so-called mini or microgrids or adding intelligence to the grid that can detect a short circuit, block power flows to that area and reroute the electricity so users do not lose access.

IEC work helps strengthen disaster resilience of infrastructure through built-in safety mechanisms, processes and minimum requirements. IEC Standards include external environmental conditions in their design requirements. For example, the IEC 61400 series of standards developed by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 88, addresses external conditions for offshore wind turbine designs which include the ability to withstand 70 m/s (155 mph, nearly 250 km/h) winds (IEC Class I), which is greater than most hurricanes.

The IEC ensures safety is an integral aspect of devices and systems, thereby protecting people, critical infrastructure, economies and the environment. These standards can address aspects of safety that apply horizontally to many products or specifically address the needs of a single product type or industry. The IEC 61508 series of standards ensures functional safety throughout the life cycle of electrical and electronic systems and devices.

However, as extreme weather events are likely to occur more frequently, a new type of resiliency for utilities may be necessary. The IEC Market Strategy Board (MSB) which identifies key technology trends and market needs, has indicated that it will tackle the issue of resiliency and ensure that electricity distribution systems are more climate-resilient.

Planning for disruption

Continuity planning for potential disasters can help mitigate the adverse effects of disasters. Planning is a key factor to minimize cost and damage should critical infrastructure become inoperable. It ensures that potential disasters have been considered and local plans developed for the restoration of services.

IEC TC 56 prepares standards in the area of dependability, a technical discipline that address the risk assessment and management of services and systems throughout their life cycle, including cyber security threats. It has developed standards that include dependability assessment and technical risk assessment. The IEC White Paper, Microgrids for disaster preparedness and recovery, addresses the actions necessary in anticipation of major electricity outages and after a disaster has occurred.

As part of their preparation, first-responders are trained to handle emergency situations. While checklists for possible scenarios can be useful, preparation can be further enhanced through training programmes that incorporate virtual reality and thus provide users with a full immersion into a seemingly real disaster scenario. Virtual reality applications rely on standards related to image processing and computer graphics developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 24, a subcommittee of the Joint Technical Committee of IEC and ISO.

Early warning systems can be put in place to provide authorities with the time necessary to evacuate vulnerable areas before a disaster strikes. For example, warnings of an impending earthquake can be discerned with laser beams that detect tectonic plate movements or seismometers that can identify and measure the earth’s vibrations. Imminent volcanic eruptions can be predicted using seismometers, gas detectors or infrared thermography cameras. All of these technologies rely on IEC Standards developed by IEC TC 76 (laser equipment), IEC TC 47 (semiconductor devices and sensors) and IEC TC 31 (equipment for explosive environments).

After the disaster…recovery

Once a disaster strikes, the recovery process begins. As a first step, drones can be sent into areas deemed too dangerous for humans in order to guide rescuers, gather data and deliver supplies.

Drones were used by the California Air National Guard in August 2018 to track the spread of the wildfires in the northern part of the state. Equipped with laser range-finders, cameras and infrared sensors, the drones were able to send images to firefighters who could use the information to determine where spot fires were located, develop containment strategies and implement evacuations.

Robots were first used to explore the wreckage following the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. They have since been used to survey damage after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan in 2011 as well as the earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015). These robots and drones rely on standards developed by IEC TC 47 and its subcommittee SC 47F (micro electromechanical systems), IEC TC 2 (motors) and SC 21A (secondary cells and batteries).

Exoskeletons can also be used in order to help rescuers clear through rubble. Following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, a hybrid assistive limb (HAL) exoskeleton suit was used as part of the clean-up effort at the nuclear reactor. Exoskeletons can be used to protect workers from dangerous radiation as well as lift weights of up to 100 kg.

Quickly restoring access to electricity after a disaster is a primary objective. Microgrids, a collection of controllable and physically close electricity production units managed locally, can help ensure the continuity of services should the traditional electricity grid fail.

No country in the world is immune from disasters and the dramatic effects of climate change. While collective action may be necessary to limit the rise in global temperature, each country must adopt disaster mitigation measures, such as infrastructure resilience and continuity planning, to ensure maximum preparation for when a disaster strikes.