When disaster strikes

Reducing the impact of power outages

By Gabriela Ehrlich

Disasters are on the rise globally. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes or floods are often further exacerbated by power outages. They increase the misery of populations by denying them basic services such as lighting, communication, clean water, safe food or healthcare. Power outages can also cause additional disasters when equipment fails to function properly for lack of electricity. There is much that can be done to assess and manage disaster risks, speed up disaster recovery and mitigate the impact of related electricity outages.

deepwater horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry

Electricity is growing in importance, everywhere

Over a third of the world’s raw energy is today converted into electricity, a rising tendency. By 2040, developing countries will consume double the electricity developed countries use today. In parallel to this increase in electricity use in developing countries, we will see a growing penetration of electric and electronic devices. That’s when the impact of power outages will be increasingly felt and resented. Already today, many devices and services in hospitals, offices, public administrations, transportation, customs bureaus, banks etc. only work when there is electricity.

More disasters

Major reported natural disasters have increased from around 70 in 1975 to over 300 in 2012 according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNSDR) statistics. These statistics omit to include disasters resulting from human errors or the failure of electronic or electrical equipment. And while the latter is luckily not too common, when equipment fails, huge disasters can ensue. Take the example of the electronically-controlled valve that didn’t close when ordered. Located at 1 km under the ocean surface, it was responsible for the biggest oil spill in history in the Gulf of Mexico.

Power failures worsen disaster impact

Electrical installations, devices and supply are generally directly and adversely affected by disasters or natural phenomena such as hurricanes, extreme cold or heat, floods, earthquakes or lightning. When disasters strike one of the first things to go is electricity supply and with it healthcare, clean water, safe food, sanitation. It is often the absence of power that exacerbates the hardship of populations and causes the biggest long-term economic and development losses.

General power outages cost billions yearly. They can also indirectly trigger human and environmental disasters. For example, when electric pumps stopped working at the Fukushima power plant they caused a nuclear disaster that added further hardship after the tsunami and earthquake.

Improving disaster risk assessment and management

Improving the preparation and response to disasters is a broad and diverse area of activity. It requires efforts in policy, regulation, standardization, conformity assessment and technology development.

From avoidance to mitigation

The IEC takes a three-pronged approach with regard to disaster risk assessment and impact mitigation:

Avoid disasters before they happen

The IEC has close to 60 Standards that directly support risk assessment and help reduce or avoid the risk of disasters resulting from the failure of electrical or electronic systems or devices. These help increase the disaster resilience of infrastructure for example through built-in safety mechanisms.

Speed up recovery

When disaster strikes, IEC work helps increase the dependability of alarm and emergency systems during extreme conditions and facilitates and speeds up recovery.

Verification and certification

IEC work is the backbone behind all forms of testing and verification in electrotechnology. The IEC also administers four Conformity Assessment Systems, whose Members conduct assessment and certify components, devices and systems that are used to build infrastructure or that are part of emergency systems. These activities directly or indirectly help avert the risk or minimize the impact of disasters.

Assessing disaster risks

The IEC together with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed a clear methodology for the assessment of risks associated with electrical safety with a view to minimize related disasters of both origins. The methodology, which is detailed in ISO/IEC Guide 51, Safety aspects -- Guidelines for their inclusion in standards, allows to determine safety needs and minimum risk reduction requirements.

Identifying electrical hazards

The methodology aims to identify the risk and occurrence of electrical hazards that can impact life or property. Those include for example:

  • electric shock
  • fire and burns
  • explosions
  • biological or chemical effects
  • magnetic and electromagnetic fields
  • ionizing and non-ionizing radiation
  • leakage of current or other incorrect functioning
  • mechanical hazards
  • environmental

This approach is extensively used in the development of IEC International Safety Standards.

When equipment is designed, manufactured and installed in line with IEC International Standards it will provide adequate protection against leakage of current, stored charges, arcs, electric shock and burns. Ultimately IEC work helps protect the investment of governments, businesses and communities and the lives of workers and populations.

Dependability – an important quality

Dependability is the ability of a product to do its job as and when required without encountering problems. Dependability does not happen by itself, it needs to be designed and built into products.

Properties of dependability

Several aspects define the dependability of a product:

  • Reliability – how long can the product do its job without failing?
  • Maintainability – how easy is it to keep the product in good running condition?
  • Maintenance support – how difficult would it be to repair the product if it fails, how much would it cost and how fast could the repair be completed?

IEC Technical Committee (TC) 56: Dependability, published the International Standard ISO/IEC 31010, Risk management – risk assessment techniques, which is a supporting Standard for ISO 31000, Risk management - Principles and guidelines. It provides systematic methods and tools for the assessment of risk and dependability and the management of equipment, services and systems throughout their life cycles.

Functional safety – essential to overall safety

Functional safety is another important concept that contributes to the overall safety of devices and systems. It describes the safety that results from a system or equipment responding and operating correctly after having received an instruction (input). For example, a safety valve that opens or closes precisely when it receives an electronic impulse to do so, such as during the filling of a chemical tank.

The concept of functional safety is applicable across all industry sectors and is fundamental for most safety-related systems. The oil and gas industry, nuclear plants, the manufacturing sector, to name but a few, all rely heavily on functional safety to achieve safety for equipment that can give rise to hazards.

Presenting IEC work at global disaster conference in Japan

During the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), which was held from 14-18 March 2015 in Sendai, Japan, IEC General Secretary & CEO Frans Vreeswijk was invited to speak at the official Working Session Standards for DRR including Building Codes. In front of a large audience, Vreeswijk presented many aspects of IEC work in this area. The presentation can be accessed here.

IEC White Papers shared broadly by UN

The IEC White Papers on sustainable Smart Cities and Microgrids for disaster relief were submitted to the UN and have been made accessible to the worldwide UN community:

Enabling more resilient infrastructure

IEC work helps countries to assess, manage and reduce the duration and impact of disasters by helping them to build more resilient infrastructure that is easier to repair and maintain.

Baan New York City Lower Manhattan in blackout after hurricane Sandy (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Buncefield 1 The Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, also known as the Buncefield oil depot, near Hemel Hampstead (UK), after a series of explosions in December 2005
deepwater horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010 The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry