Blog Post

Hurricane Irene highlights need for smarter grid

Hurricane Irene wasn’t exactly the raging monster that some forecasters expected, but it has left millions of people across a whole bunch of communities in the dark, and potentially without power for days, and even weeks, at a time. For example, Long Island Power Authority was able to restore electricity for about 150,000 customers but left 350,000 without power for the second day, according to local reports. Dow Jones reported that wide areas of Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and other states, are still without power, and could have to wait until next weekend or longer to have their power restored.

Google (s goog) has been trying to help shed some light on the outage situation and tells me it has been adding information about the blackouts from utilities onto its Crisis Map. Google says utilities can seamlessly have the outage data updated, if they publish their maps via a KML, GeoRSS or Fusion Table file.

But as Triple Pundit pointed out, the outages due to major storms like Irene could likely be far shorter, and could be easier and cheaper to fix after the next-generation of smart grid technology is installed. ComEd has said publicly that if smart grid technology had been in place for previous storms this summer, the impact of those storms would have been minimized. Smart grid tech can allow utilities to know when specific customers are without power without the customer having to call the utility, and digital automation tech can also reroute power to customers in need.

According to Ray Dotter, Strategic Communications exec for transmission agency PJM Interconnection, smart grid devices could be beneficial in storm restoration on the distribution side indicating to dispatchers at utilities when electric service is lost. But on the transmission side, smart grid devices can also help with storm management. For example, PJM is working with its members to install synchrophasors (sensors) on the transmission system that give system operators a better picture of grid conditions and a better ability to predict developing storm-related problems.

While some consumers wonder what the direct benefits are for them from their utilities building out these smart grids, it could actually be a reduction in blackouts that’s one of the more obvious consumer benefits. Picture an outage time of a couple of minutes or hours, vs more than a week, for some of the communities in the wake of Irene. It’s probably worth the extra dollar or two on your monthly energy bill.

Reducing outages isn’t only a benefit for consumers; it saves the utility money, too. According to Massoud Amin, the director of the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota, power outages cost the U.S. economy between $80 billion and $188 billion per year. Amin says there have been an increasing amount of outages per year in the U.S., and a smart grid could reduce the costs of outages by about $49 billion per year in the U.S. (in addition to the energy efficiency savings, carbon reduction savings, ability to integrate more clean power and consumer-facing home energy tools).

Image courtesy of spcbrass.

3 Responses to “Hurricane Irene highlights need for smarter grid”

  1. Voice OfReason

    The power companies do not have enough transformers in inventory to replace those transformers that burned out during the storm. They have to be shipped fron other out-of-state power companies, which explains the delay in getting systems up and running again.

  2. Alan DeClerck

    The grid needed is a grid of robots and sensors *at sea*. Our predictive data currently has no granularity to it, and most sensors can’t be in situ and survive.