Risk Insider: Chris Mandel

Predicting the Unpredictable

By: | May 15, 2017 • 3 min read
Chris Mandel is SVP, strategic solutions for Sedgwick and Director of the Sedgwick Institute. He is a long-term risk management leader and a former president of RIMS. He can be reached at [email protected]
Topics: Risk Insider

One thing that has become commonplace in the last 15 years is the unexpected: 9-11 was unexpected. Hurricane Katrina was unexpected. The rise of ISIS was unexpected. Target Corporation’s point of sale hack, now valued at more than $1 billion total impact, was unexpected. Donald Trump’s 2016 election to president of the United States was unexpected (just ask Hillary Clinton).

Thus the unexpected, or commonly considered “emerging risks,” are now less unexpected. Another way to think about this is that those “black swans” that were at one time unknown to exist, have increasingly been discovered in their hiding places, often too late to prevent and sometimes too late to effectively mitigate their impact.

While most risk practitioners have come around to agreeing that one of the better synonyms for risk is “uncertainty,” there is little agreement about how to better get ahead of the new reality of this increasing uncertainty.

We must become more capable of fulfilling the growing expectation of being reliable, strategic advisors to management and governance in ways that directly and indirectly improve the chances of success through mission accomplishment.

Yet the most common question I used to receive from senior management and boards was “tell me what I don’t know or can’t see or have no idea is coming that could destroy the plan or even the organization itself.”

Perhaps they thought I had a crystal ball? I did not; I do not.

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And so risk leaders are increasingly challenged with the expectation of identifying and addressing those risks that few, if anyone, can see or understand and yet can either be massively destructive or, on the flip side, sizable lost opportunity.

A paucity of information is usually a key hurdle. Reluctant risk ownership is another. Convincing decisionmakers of their relevancy can be the showstopper, especially in our common environments of constrained resources. Yet as risk leaders, we are expected to be strategic and have vision for things others can’t see or even imagine.

Scenario and stress testing may be helpful. Monte Carlo simulations may be less so. This by its very nature is a challenge that I think calls for more qualitative than quantitative solutions, more acceptable in some environs than others — less scientific, more nuanced. Both will be important to the solution.

No matter the magnitude of the challenge, the big win for risk leaders of the future will be the ways in which uncertainty can be lowered by reducing the number and impact of unexpected risk events. While no small task, with emerging tools such as those enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), we can do this.

We must become more capable of fulfilling the growing expectation of being reliable, strategic advisors to management and governance in ways that directly and indirectly improve the chances of success through mission accomplishment.

This does not mean we must have the precisely right answer to every potential risk. It does mean we need to improve management’s understanding and awareness of the possibilities and what can be done about them, moving measurably beyond the probabilities that have normally been undergirded by historical data enabling reliable prediction.

We can do it. We will be expected to do it to earn our keep. We must do it to validate the discipline as the true profession to which it has for so long aspired.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Alternative Energy

A Shift in the Wind

As warranties run out on wind turbines, underwriters gain insight into their long-term costs.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Wind energy is all grown up. It is no longer an alternative, but in some wholesale markets has set the incremental cost of generation.

As the industry has grown, turbine towers have as well. And as the older ones roll out of their warranty periods, there are more claims.

This is a bit of a pinch in a soft market, but it gives underwriters new insight into performance over time — insight not available while manufacturers were repairing or replacing components.

Charles Long, area SVP, renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

“There is a lot of capacity in the wind market,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy at broker Arthur J. Gallagher.

“The segment is still very soft. What we are not seeing is any major change in forms from the major underwriters. They still have 280-page forms. The specialty underwriters have a 48-page form. The larger carriers need to get away from a standard form with multiple endorsements and move to a form designed for wind, or solar, or storage. It is starting to become apparent to the clients that the firms have not kept up with construction or operations,” at renewable energy facilities, he said.

Third-party liability also remains competitive, Long noted.

“The traditional markets are doing liability very well. There are opportunities for us to market to multiple carriers. There is a lot of generation out there, but the bulk of the writing is by a handful of insurers.”

Broadly the market is “still softish,” said Jatin Sharma, head of business development for specialty underwriter G-Cube.

“There has been an increase in some distressed areas, but there has also been some regional firming. Our focus is very much on the technical underwriting. We are also emphasizing standardization, clean contracts. That extends to business interruption, marine transit, and other covers.”

The Blade Problem

“Gear-box maintenance has been a significant issue for a long time, and now with bigger and bigger blades, leading-edge erosion has become a big topic,” said Sharma. “Others include cracking and lightning and even catastrophic blade loss.”

Long, at Gallagher, noted that operationally, gear boxes have been getting significantly better. “Now it is blades that have become a concern,” he said. “Problems include cracking, fraying, splitting.

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“In response, operators are using more sophisticated inspection techniques, including flying drones. Those reduce the amount of climbing necessary, reducing risk to personnel as well.”

Underwriters certainly like that, and it is a huge cost saver to the owners, however, “we are not yet seeing that credited in the underwriting,” said Long.

He added that insurance is playing an important role in the development of renewable energy beyond the traditional property, casualty, and liability coverages.

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine. Weather risk coverage can be done in multiple ways, or there can be an actual put, up to a fixed portion of capacity, plus or minus 20 percent, like a collar; a straight over/under.”

As useful as those financial instruments are, the first priority is to get power into the grid. And for that, Long anticipates “aggressive forward moves around storage. Spikes into the system are not good. Grid storage is not just a way of providing power when the wind is not blowing; it also acts as a shock absorber for times when the wind blows too hard. There are ebbs and flows in wind and solar so we really need that surge capacity.”

Long noted that there are some companies that are storage only.

“That is really what the utilities are seeking. The storage company becomes, in effect, just another generator. It has its own [power purchase agreement] and its own interconnect.”

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine.”  —Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

Another trend is co-location, with wind and solar, as well as grid-storage or auxiliary generation, on the same site.

“Investors like it because it boosts internal rates of return on the equity side,” said Sharma. “But while it increases revenue, it also increases exposure. … You may have a $400 million wind farm, plus a $150 million solar array on the same substation.”

In the beginning, wind turbines did not generate much power, explained Rob Battenfield, senior vice president and head of downstream at JLT Specialty USA.

“As turbines developed, they got higher and higher, with bigger blades. They became more economically viable. There are still subsidies, and at present those subsidies drive the investment decisions.”

For example, some non-tax paying utilities are not eligible for the tax credits, so they don’t invest in new wind power. But once smaller companies or private investors have made use of the credits, the big utilities are likely to provide a ready secondary market for the builders to recoup their capital.

That structure also affects insurance. More PPAs mandate grid storage for intermittent generators such as wind and solar. State of the art for such storage is lithium-ion batteries, which have been prone to fires if damaged or if they malfunction.

“Grid storage is getting larger,” said Battenfield. “If you have variable generation you need to balance that. Most underwriters insure generation and storage together. Project leaders may need to have that because of non-recourse debt financing. On the other side, insurers may be syndicating the battery risk, but to the insured it is all together.”

“Grid storage is getting larger. If you have variable generation you need to balance that.” — Rob Battenfield, senior vice president, head of downstream, JLT Specialty USA

There has also been a mechanical and maintenance evolution along the way. “The early-generation short turbines were throwing gears all the time,” said Battenfield.

But now, he said, with fewer manufacturers in play, “the blades, gears, nacelles, and generators are much more mechanically sound and much more standardized. Carriers are more willing to write that risk.”

There is also more operational and maintenance data now as warranties roll off. Battenfield suggested that the door started to open on that data three or four years ago, but it won’t stay open forever.

“When the equipment was under warranty, it would just be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer,” he said.

“Now there’s more equipment out of warranty, there are more claims. However, if the big utilities start to aggregate wind farms, claims are likely to drop again. That is because the utilities have large retentions, often about $5 million. Claims and premiums are likely to go down for wind equipment.”

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Repair costs are also dropping, said Battenfield.

“An out-of-warranty blade set replacement can cost $300,000. But if it is repairable by a third party, it could cost as little as $30,000 to have a specialist in fiberglass do it in a few days.”

As that approach becomes more prevalent, business interruption (BI) coverage comes to the fore. Battenfield stressed that it is important for owners to understand their PPA obligations, as well as BI triggers and waiting periods.

“The BI challenge can be bigger than the property loss,” said Battenfield. “It is important that coverage dovetails into the operator’s contractual obligations.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]