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How NOAA is helping utilities face increasingly intense climate threats

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration is supporting improved forecasting and climate resiliency efforts.

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Photo credit: Godofredo A. Vasquez / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Photo credit: Godofredo A. Vasquez / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

In late May, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration released its annual hurricane forecast. With record-high ocean temperatures and a La Niña weather pattern, the outlook is bleak. 

Tropical Storm Alberto, the first named storm of the season, caused deadly flooding in Mexico and Texas in late June. A week later, Hurricane Beryl formed in the Caribbean, becoming the earliest Category 5 hurricane ever recorded. It went on to kill more than a dozen people in the Caribbean and Texas in the following days, and millions lost power.

“Not only is it a large season, we have it as the strongest season we've ever put out with a prediction of an 85% chance of above normal season,” Sarah Kapnick, NOAA’s chief scientist, said on the With Great Power podcast. “Everyone needs to be ready for this and take it seriously.”

Utilities are heeding the warning. Intense storms often bring down utility assets, but concurrent extreme weather events can wreak further havoc. In May, a massive wind storm hit Houston. 

“It took out energy, it took out infrastructure, and luckily it was cool, but then two weeks later it was in the 90s, 100s,” Kapnick said. Had that wind storm coincided with extreme heat, the impacts on people could have been devastating. 

In 2022, EPRI and NOAA entered into a three-year memorandum of understanding aimed at tempering that type of devastation by developing a scientifically based approach to physical climate risk assessment in the energy sector.

The agreement is two-pronged. NOAA is advising EPRI on how its members can integrate climate change in their operations – through reports and training programs – to better protect assets and avoid outages. But the agency is also advising EPRI members on better integrating climate change into its investment decisions. That may seem outside the scope of an agency chiefly focused on meteorology and ocean science, but to Kapnick, it makes perfect sense. 

“I'm so proud of this work because I saw it as the first necessary steps that the Electric Power Research Institute needed to be taking along this path to understand climate risk assessments and what to do about it, both from a business resiliency standpoint in your operations, but also in the built infrastructure of utilities,” Kapnick said.

Utilities’ evolving climate risk plans

Kapnick first interacted with utilities while she was conducting her doctoral research on the impacts of declining snowpacks on water markets, including hydropower, in the western United States. Utilities used some of the snowpack data she collected for hydropower planning. But at an industry event in 2009, Kapnick recalled that utility representatives doubted warnings about progressively earlier snowpack melt and declining water supply. 

Today, it’s hard to imagine having those doubts, she said. But, she added, this was before drought had changed soil moisture levels and vegetation enough to set up conditions for catastrophic events in Northern California, like the 2018 Camp Fire. 

More recently, utilities across the West have begun bolstering internal prediction capabilities.

“This really started after PG&E's bankruptcy, after the wildfire that they experienced, that they've started building up their meteorological teams to understand long-term risk, but also understand short-term risk,” Kapnick said. “So, for example, if you have fire weather, do you continue operations or do you have brownouts in certain places to avoid causing the fire?” 

Beyond weather and climate risks

Kapnick is a climate scientist. But she also has experience in finance — specifically in climate risk. Her unique background means she approaches risk mitigation with a deep understanding of the variables that influence climate over time. At NOAA, she helped build snowpack modeling that enables nine-month predictions and turned it into climate-model products for end users like utilities and water managers. These products include data on stream flow, soil moisture, and winds and are designed to provide actionable information for planning.

NOAA is also collaborating with public health agencies to provide predictions and resources related to excessive heat through and is working with government, tribal, and academic partners on drought monitoring through the portal. In late June, NOAA announced $4.9 million in funding allocated through the Inflation Reduction Act to help improve drought monitoring and prediction in the American West.

But when it comes to protecting utility assets and NOAA’s ongoing work with EPRI, Kapnick said she wants to see utilities developing threat analyses that consider multiple vulnerabilities to their networks — not just how a storm or wildfire could impact a particular asset, but that asset’s vulnerability to a cyberattack as well. 

Not having that holistic view compounds risks, she said.

“The fact that those risks are separate from one another means actually the risk of failure is higher than them separately.” 

For the full conversation with Sarah Kapnick on how NOAA is working with utilities, listen to her interview on season 3 of With Great Power.

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With Great Power is a show about the people building the future grid, today. It's a co-production of GridX and Latitude Studios. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your shows.


Brad Langley: As a kid back in the late '80s, I idolized Will Clark, first baseman of the San Francisco Giants. I had all of his baseball cards, his posters on my wall. I even tried to emulate his swing. My best friend, he loved professional football and was a huge fan of 49er fullback Tom Rathman. We were the ultimate sports junkies, but Sarah Kapnick's hero was someone few other kids had ever heard of.

Movie clip: This problem here will take some of you many months to solve. For others among you, take you the time of your natural lives.

Brad Langley: Long before Russell Crowe portrayed him in the movie A Beautiful Mind, Sarah already knew she wanted to work under her idol John Nash, the nobel laureate who developed mathematical principles of game theory. She envisioned herself helping Nash solve esoteric math problems, but then she started solving them on her own.

Sarah Kapnick: I was at Princeton University and I was doing research, and I thought it was the peak of the science and math that I could be doing. It was this really interesting work that would have these implications for other fields, and when I made a discovery and asked my advisor, "Who are we going to tell about this great discovery?" He's like, "I don't think you understand. There's only three people in the world that really understand what we're doing here."

Brad Langley: It was a discovery that got her thinking about more tangible problems and how she could help solve them. That question led her into finance, then geophysical fluid dynamics, and ultimately climate change. She even did a short stint at Goldman Sachs.

Sarah Kapnick: I covered financial institutions and I learned about catastrophe bonds and I learned about how financial institutions think about risk, and I realized that there was a lot that wasn't understood on the climate side and so I went to get my PhD in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. I experimented actually with building a renewable energy forecasting company that melded my interest in finance and climate, but it was ahead of its time 20 years ago.

Brad Langley: She changed course again to a role at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she honed her climate modeling skills.

Sarah Kapnick: I wanted to understand how do you build products and how do you understand the world and then how do you make that operational where you can then use that information on a regular basis.

Brad Langley: Then after six years of research at NOAA, she headed back to Wall Street, taking a senior climate science role at JP Morgan, but a year in she actually got a call from NOAA asking if she'd come back. They wanted her to take one of their top roles, chief scientist. It was an offer she couldn't refuse.

Sarah Kapnick: I felt it was a duty to bring my private sector experience, my technical knowledge of hydroclimate and market impacts of climate change and climate variability and extreme weather back to NOAA because I uniquely had this experience, being extremely technical but also having that Wall Street experience. I came back to make sure that climate science is used for decision-making both to avoid risks but also to develop the new opportunities that we have if that information is unlocked and used.

Brad Langley: This is With Great Power, a show about the people building the future grid today. I'm Brad Langley. Some people say utilities are slow to change, they don't innovate fast enough, and while it might not always seem like the most cutting-edge industry, there are lots of really smart people working really hard to make the grid cleaner, more reliable, and customer-centric. This week my guest is Dr. Sarah Kapnick, chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We talk about a range of topics including how NOAA is working with utilities to better protect energy assets, what does prediction model say about this year's hurricane season, and we even get into some truly out there stuff like space weather. But first I asked Sarah to describe her role as chief scientist.

Sarah Kapnick: I would describe it as helping guide NOAA, how it does science and technology and then promoting it outside the agency. The science of NOAA is the science of everything around us. It's weather, it's fisheries, it's climate, and so that information, having it in a timely manner so you can plan for it, you can react to it so you can reduce risks and exposures to what may come, all of that is NOAA science.

Brad Langley: In 2022, the year you became chief scientist, EPRI and NOAA entered into a three-year memorandum of understanding focused on developing a scientifically-based approach to physical climate risk assessment in the energy sector in particular. What has come out of that collaboration to date?

Sarah Kapnick: With that, we've been helping them with their reports on how to be considering climate change in their operations, but also in their investments. We've been lending our subject matter expertise since they were developing those reports and also training programs for their staff and for their members. I'm so proud of this work because I saw it as the first necessary steps that the Electric Power Research Institute needed to be taking along this path to understand climate risk assessments and what to do about it from a business resiliency standpoint in your operations, but also in the built infrastructure of utilities.

Brad Langley: Are there specific ways you're seeing utilities use NOAA weather and climate data to improve their operations or increase resiliency?

Sarah Kapnick: There are a number of ways. One is around sea level rise. They're using the Sea Level Rise Viewer and that underlying information, what is the future of sea level rise, to understand what their exposures may be, particularly as they're spending so much right now to be able to build out or change the grid. They want to make sure it lasts 20, 50 years. There's also been a call for more hail information because last summer, we saw $19 billion disasters that relate to severe weather, of which hail can be a component of that. At the meetings that I attended with EPRI, there was a call for better hail information. We receive that both from the utilities, but we also receive that from the insurance and reinsurance sectors because the insurance has to pay after those hail events occur. We actually are now producing a new dataset on historic hail across the United States and making it more accessible and working with these industries to make sure that they can access that information, it's useful to them, and that they're educated on how to use it because they're telling us that they need it, that they didn't have it and understand what their exposures were as [inaudible 00:06:18] in certain parts of the country.

Brad Langley: That's pretty fascinating. I think this is my first kind of realization of the impact of hail on energy operations. That's pretty fascinating. In what ways does the MOU with EPRI help NOAA achieve its goals? Maybe talk us through what those goals are.

Sarah Kapnick: Yeah. Our goals and our mission are science, service, and stewardship. Working with EPRI, it's service, we're providing the information that the groups need, but also it's feeding back on the science and then from that as well on getting all these questions of, "What is the future of hail and what is the future of these different phenomenon that people are concerned about?" That's feeding back on how we're prioritizing what we do research into and what scales to be able to produce the information that people want on the multi-year [inaudible 00:07:07] timescale. Then it's also feeding into, "How do we do our seasonal predictions and how do we make sure that everyone has the information they need from those models?" I would say there's a few papers even recently that have come out out of our more traditional climate science, more theoretical laboratory, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. There's new research, "How can you model seasonal predictions of wind and thinking through different phenomenon that matter for these sectors?"

Brad Langley: Another climate factor that impacts the power sector is the changing snowpack, which impacts hydropower. When you worked at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, you led a hindcast that looked at the lean snowpack between 2012 and 2015, and you considered how better snowpack forecast might've helped the west prepare for those low water years. Water scarcity obviously impacts hydropower output but also drives a wildfire risk. How can working with NOAA help utilities better understand those risks?

Sarah Kapnick: The work that I did showed that there's nine-month predictability. You can predict in the summer how much peak snowpack there will be in the winter with some degree of skill. That was pure research and we're building that out of improving our modeling and our product delivery around snowpack, around streamflow. It's producing the information that is either the inputs for those hydropower modeling, but also producing now also multiple variables of interest that people also need for those wildfire predictions. That is soil moisture, it's vegetation, it's winds, it's humidity, and making sure that we're producing all of that information and packaging in a way that it's useful.

Brad Langley: Are you seeing more utilities use the idea of these hindcasts to improve their forecasting to protect their assets?

Sarah Kapnick: Absolutely. In the last few years when I'm talking to utilities, particularly through EPRI, I've been finding that groups have been building up their meteorological teams. This really started after PG&E's bankruptcy after the wildfire that they experienced that they've started building up their meteorological teams to understand long-term risk but also understand short-term risk. It's not just in California. It's across the entire American West, and we're also seeing it in other places that are wildfire-prone, we're seeing it increasing the places that have severe storms that they're building up their teams to look at multiple types of hazards and to be able to assess them long-term but also on a short-term basis. For example, if you have fire weather do you continue operations or do you have brownouts in certain places to avoid causing the fire?

It's much easier to make those decisions in a cool head in winter when you're thinking through, "What are all the scenarios and how do we deal with that?" Because if you have the brownout, then you need to think about, "Okay, what areas are then impacted by that? Who do we need to notify that they won't have energy? But also if we are doing all of our infrastructure planning, do we put storage facilities in certain locations? How do we think about this resiliency for that plan?" The projection information tells you your worst case scenarios of what may happen over the coming decades and then allows you to make those plans for what you do if one of those events happens when you then have the forecast of it unfolding.

Brad Langley: This may be related, but I live in California and obviously wildfires, as you mentioned, in the west are pretty prevalent. I know Maria Pope, who's the CEO of Portland General Electric, is focused on improving how they can better predict and plan for potential wildfires in Oregon. Is that the kind of work that NOAA's doing to support those types of efforts or are there other things you guys are doing to help utilities like PGE prepare for and mitigate the risk of wildfire in their operations?

Sarah Kapnick: Those are the efforts and reasons that we partnered with EPRI was to make sure that we were putting this information out there, we were making sure it was scientifically valid, but also that we were providing the input necessary as they were thinking through, "How do we advise the industry on how to use the freely available government information that is also the authoritative information that is backed by the US government both for long-term planning, but also for that short-term resiliency planning? When you're in that weather forecast where with two weeks or with hours in advance and event is going to happen, how do you respond to it?" Maria Pope actually was one of the people that originally invited me to give a speech at one of the industry conferences, and I made a joke at the beginning of it that 20 years ago I don't think that we would've been invited in the room, NOAA, to talk about all these things, but now there's so much interest in the use of this information to make these decisions, particularly with all the investment decisions that need to be made right now.

Brad Langley: There's so much interest and so much need because these wildfires and climate issues, like you've mentioned, are just becoming so much more prevalent for states across the country, so it's interest and need I'd imagine.

Sarah Kapnick: I'll also say when I talk sometimes, it sounds very doomerism and people get worried of, "She's only saying these bad things of what is to come." But with this information, businesses can make plans and have resiliency as they have with any extreme weather and climate events in the past. Now it's just there's an imperative with the change in climate and change in probabilities and magnitudes of extremes to do that planning even more so now because you can't use the historical data or the historical loss data to know what is to come.

Brad Langley: When you bring your lens of risk management to thinking about how utilities can future-proof their business, it's about more than just climate and it's about more than single points of failure, but rather a whole network. Are there ways that protecting energy assets from climate change overlaps with other types of risk management?

Sarah Kapnick: Yeah. I've been thinking about this a lot about how companies structure their business to make sure that they know what their points of failure are. Particularly with utilities, I've had this conversation around instead of just thinking about, "What is the likelihood of a rainfall event or likelihood of a hail event?" If you look at your grid and you think, "Where are my points of failure? What breaks me?" You come to a conclusion that you may have certain locations that create a vulnerability for your delivery more than others. With that, then you look at that location, you can then say, "Okay, what is the risk of an event happening here?"

The events that NOAA looks at are the weather and climate ones. There's also space weather and how space weather may affect the grid, but then looking beyond the science that I do, it can also be cybersecurity. It's also really interesting because that allows you then to say, "Okay, this is your point of failure and we can quantify the climate and weather risk to your location." The cybersecurity expert may have their risk and analysis and those are independent, so actually the risk of a failure is higher because you have the weather and climate events but you also might have the cybersecurity events, and so thinking about that holistically of not just, "What is the likelihood of all these different types of events that may affect me?" But thinking about those points of failure, you can then think holistically about all the different ways that you might have a risk at that location.

Brad Langley: How are you seeing utilities marry those two very distinct disciplines together to create that holistic view?

Sarah Kapnick: They have their teams that are trying to bridge between the meteorological teams as well as those cybersecurity teams to make those decisions. I've only been in the room where I've been asked to comment on how to start thinking about the climate side and have the cybersecurity experts explain how to think about it in their way.

Brad Langley: Now let's talk about space weather. First, what is it? What is space weather?

Sarah Kapnick: It's basically weather coming off of the sun. You have a coronal mass ejection where particles are coming off the sun and they change the magnetosphere of the earth, which then leads to drag on satellites and it can also lead to satellites burning up in the atmosphere and coming into Earth, but it can also induce currents in the grid and also on undersea cables.

Brad Langley: Maybe dig into a little bit in terms of how space weather impacts utilities and how you all provide the information they need to address that.

Sarah Kapnick: We actually have a satellite out at L1 way out in space that's pointing at the sun, and then we have models using that information to understand what space weather may come towards Earth. They're able to monitor that and then give us many hours' notice or even have a notice days in advance of expectations for space weather. Then they put out an alert, and so that alert goes out that you should expect one of these types of events. For example, on the May 10th and 11th, we had a G5 geomagnetic storm, which is a very strong storm, and NWS, National Weather Service, through the Space Weather Prediction Center was able to put that alert out in advance. They put it out actually on May 9th, so a day before the event started happening, and they actually activated the network. There's the North American Electric Reliability Corporation or NERC hotline, and so they put that watch out and then it gets the information out to all the utilities saying, "This event is very likely. It is coming. Prepare for it." Then NERC disseminates that information, and they did so and it was nearly six hours more of advance lead time for 3000 electric utility companies nationwide to start preparing for the forecasted geomagnetic storm. It's often through their transformers or they know to switch off certain things in certain locations, and so they have operational plans when one of these alerts gets activated.

Brad Langley: Is space weather something utilities have been thinking about for a long time or is this a relatively new consideration for them?

Sarah Kapnick: It is something that ebbs and flows with the solar cycles of the sun. Right now we are entering into the solar maximum for the next 18 months, and so we've been talking about this and saying, "You need to prepare for it. You need to be thinking about it. You haven't thought about it in a long time. Actually, the last solar maximum wasn't as bad so it's been almost two decades that people have been really thinking about this, but now you need to be thinking about and preparing for it."

Brad Langley: NOAA has predicted an active and destructive hurricane season this year and very intense heat this summer, which here in California we're experiencing and have been for the past two weeks. How are utilities using those predictions to improve planning and assess their risks?

Sarah Kapnick: Not only is it a large season, we have it as the strongest season we've ever put out with a prediction of an 85% chance of above normal season with 17 to 25 total named storms, eight to 13 hurricanes and four to seven of those being major hurricanes, so category three or higher. Every hurricane season, the preparations that we advocate for and then we work with utilities and we work with states around is preparing lines for extreme winds, for extreme rain. Some states now have these barriers that can go out really quickly to be able to avoid storm surge. It just takes one storm, and you can have one storm that hits anywhere in the United States, even in a low hurricane year, but given this is such an active season predicted it means that we need to be of greater alert right now. I do worry that if we don't have... I pray that we don't have any hit the United States, but if we don't have them, this may lower people's expectations, so it can really only take one storm that affects us, but we should always be at heightened preparedness every hurricane season.

Brad Langley: Last question for you. It's a bit of a fun one. We call this show With Great Power, which is a nod to the power industry. It's also a famous Spider-Man quote, "With great power comes great responsibility." I'm curious, what superpower do you bring to the energy transition?

Sarah Kapnick: We actually know what's coming due to physics in terms of climate and weather, and so that great power is we have an idea of what is coming into the future and the great responsibility is we need to act upon that information to be able to build resiliency in our grid and to provide energy security.

Brad Langley: It's almost like you all have X-ray vision as an impressive superpower. Dr. Kapnick, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Sarah Kapnick: Thank you so much for having me.

Brad Langley: Sarah Kapnick is the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA. With Great Power is produced by GridX in partnership with Latitude Studios.

Delivering on our clean energy future is complex. GridX exists to simplify the journey. GridX is the enterprise rate platform that modern utilities rely on to usher in our clean energy future. We design and implement emerging rate structures and we increase consumer investment in clean energy, all while managing the complex billing needs of a distributed grid.

Our production team includes Erin Hardick and Mary Catherine O'Connor. Anne Bailey is our senior editor, Stephen Lacey is our executive editor. The original theme song is from Sean Marquand. Roy Campanella mixed the show. The GridX production team includes Jenni Barber, Samantha McCabe, and me, Brad Langley. If this show is providing value for you, and we really hope it is, please help us spread the word. You can rate or review us at Apple or Spotify or you can share a link with a friend, colleague or the energy nerd in your life. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Brad Langley.

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