How a Smart Grid Can Get the Lights Back on Faster

Smart meters are playing a crucial role in speeding the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. They have the potential to do much more.
by | November 16, 2012
 

Sandy's claiming of the title as the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history shows us the advantages and limitations of rigorous planning. The slow and arduous recovery faced by some East Coast communities has been coupled with the impressive speed with which many other communities have been able to return to business as usual. New emergency procedures put in place at the local and state levels deserve a lot of the credit. These included shutting down infrastructure and battening the hatches to protect vital resources and prepare for recovery.

Yet the storm teaches us that the best way to plan for the truly unexpected will be by being prepared to to improvise and by understanding that resilience in times of disaster isn't determined only by a static disaster plan but to a greater degree by being dynamic and responsive to change. Being dynamic requires real-time data. Recent technologies are beginning to provide more access to more data, allowing analytics to find the patterns fast enough to make it useful during a disaster.

Smart grids, and particularly smart electric meters, played a promising role in improving disaster response and the speed with which power could be restored after Sandy passed. That role was small-scale and local, since electric utilities' conversion to smart-grid technology has been slower and spottier than desired, but the potential is there for the technology to have a much larger impact as these systems are rolled out more widely.

At best, phone calls and spotty service-outage reports can slowly piece together a hazy picture of the conditions of a power network. But smart meters, programmed to send out a "last call of distress" when power is lost, can automatically report service cuts. This gives a utility company instant access to regional maps of outages, allowing it to prioritize repair-crew mobilization and begin getting service back to customers without them even having to report an outage.

Smart meters also can help identify the locations of particularly tricky "nested" outages, when more than one break is affecting an area. Additionally, smart meters can automatically report getting back on line when power is restored, eliminating unnecessary calls between the utility company and customers or follow-up service-crew visits. Repair crews can move on to the next repair rather than spending time checking on their last one, increasing efficiency and reducing system repair time considerably.

Pepco, the electric utility serving Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Maryland, is crediting its partially implemented smart-meter system with helping get the power back on for its 100,000 customers affected by outages in the wake of Sandy. The store of information generated by the smart meters not only is available to the company's repair crews to inform their response but also is aggregated into a regional map available online to give customers a better idea of system conditions.

PPL Electric Utilities' smart meters allowed the company's Pennsylvania customers to check on the status of their power's return online and from the safety and comfort of remote locations, without having to trek out to potentially powerless homes or using the precious resource of repair-crew hours to do so. And while Baltimore Gas and Electric's smart-meter system is only 10 percent complete, the utility credits the program with facilitating much faster troubleshooting and with replacing phone calls to customers to check on service--calls that often go unanswered--with a quick and reliable stream of information.

The next time a major storm hits, there will be more examples of service-restoration improvements enabled by this technology. In the face of consumer suspicions and resistance to smart meters, utilities need to publicize these success stories to build support for continued smart-grid development. The more data government and utilities can tap, the faster they can act and the more resilient a community can become.

Particularly in times of emergency, information availability and accessibility are key not only for power providers but for responding public officials and for customers looking for clarity in the confusion of a disaster. The speed and granularity of the data informing decisions are crucial factors after a storm hits, and smart-grid technology can play a big role in supplying a steady and actionable stream of information--information that can get the lights back on faster.

Ben Weinryb Grohsgal contributed significantly to the research and writing for this column. He is a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a student in the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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