Natural Catastrophe

Quake Early Warning Systems Advance

The U.S. Geological Survey is funding the development of the next generation of earthquake early warning systems.
By: | September 7, 2016 • 4 min read

The recent catastrophic earthquake in central Italy once again brings attention to the concept of an earthquake early warning system — a technology that can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they’re doing and take protective actions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.

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To try to improve an existing (in development) U.S.-based warning system, ShakeAlert, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently awarded $3.7 million to six universities to support transitioning ShakeAlert into a full-blown production system.

According to USGS, the schools involved are the California Institute of Technology, Central Washington University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Oregon, University of Washington and University of Nevada, Reno.

In development for a decade, this impending ShakeAlert “upgrade” emphasizes the use of real-time GPS observations. Typical earthquake early warning systems use seismic data, which is not as effective as GPS technology in many cases.

The project’s goal: rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the warning system, and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade the networks and construct new seismic and geodetic sensors to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings.

“Local seismic networks have a tough time discriminating between large [M6] and very large [M7-9] earthquakes in real-time, whereas the GPS does not, assuming one has instruments nearby the earthquake and can keep them alive and transmitting thereafter,” said Tim Melbourne, a geological sciences professor and director of the PANGA Geodesy Laboratory at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

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Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

According to Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator at the Caltech Seismological Lab in Pasadena, Calif., the USGS and its partners began sending live alerts to beta users in January of 2012. In February 2016, it rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California.

USGS plans to begin sending limited public alerts by 2018 in areas where station coverage is sufficient and public educations and training has been introduced. Full operation will not be possible until full funding is secured to complete, maintain, and operate the system.

“Recording real-time, high-precision GPS ground motions is an emerging technology,” he said. “GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.”

Given cited the M9.0 Japanese earthquake in 2010. The Japanese earthquake warning system, which only uses seismic data, “saturated” at M8.1, resulting in an underestimation of the resulting ground motions.

“GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.” — Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

“Studies done after the earthquake have shown that a better magnitude estimate results by including GPS data,” Given said.

Would ShakeAlert, operating at full production, have an impact on commercial insurance? It’s highly possible, according to experts.

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Michael Pinsel, partner, Insurance and Financial Services group, Sidley Austin LLP

“We welcome public investments into the mitigation of earthquake risks in California, as it contributes to a more resilient society,” said Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, with Swiss Re. “Ample warning time of a pending natural disaster is vital to saving lives.”

Castaldi explained that with meteorological events, many of which are slow moving, experts can predict and warn with a degree of accuracy — days, hours, or minutes beforehand. This keeps fatalities down in relation to property damage.

But earthquakes, and their potential for devastation, and can happen at any time, day or night.

“Early warning systems provide valuable seconds before the ground begins to shake,” he said. “Even a few seconds’ warning will provide time for first responders to prepare, for trains to decelerate, for gas pipe shutoff valves to be closed, for example. Moreover, early warning can save lives by giving people time to protect themselves [drop, cover, and hold].”

“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California.” — Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, Swiss Re

Castaldi said that businesses and people that incorporate early warnings into their emergency preparedness plans can mitigate against potential fire, business interruption and casualty losses. He cautioned though, that even a system like ShakeAlert cannot reduce damage to a poorly designed building or a poorly secured piece of equipment, nor can it help compensate for the financial losses associated with the ensuing damages.

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“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California,” he said. “Early warnings, enforced building codes, and adequate post-event financing [earthquake insurance] will help us become more resilient to the next big earthquake.”

Michael Pinsel, a partner in the Insurance and Financial Services group at Sidley Austin LLP, in Chicago, said that advances in science, technology and early warning systems no doubt enhance the opportunities to improve the risk management of those who take advantage of such opportunities.

“Improvements in risk management ultimately should be reflected in lower loss costs and more efficient premium structures for protection buyers,” he said. “And improvements to sensor and telemetry infrastructure are also useful to the insurance industry, which often can develop efficient new coverages and risk-spreading products to help individual and business consumers manage their risks.”

Tom Starner is a freelance business writer and editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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]