Living in New York City through a week of Sandy and her aftermath was a reminder of just how critical electricity is to our lives.
Electricity is the difference between feeling safe in well-lit buildings and streets, or vulnerable in the dark. Between food kept well-preserved in refrigerators and water pumping through pipes, or dinner spoiling and taps gone dry. Between communications and productivity, or isolation and economic losses — which are now forecasted, from Sandy alone, to reach $50 billion.
For some, electric power is literally life or death: heat on
a cold night, access to vital medical services.
The responsibility for providing these essential services rests on utilities. And the gravity of that responsibility – along with a reliance on long-lived and costly assets – has led to a culture of caution. One that has given the power industry pause in moving away from the tried and true methods it has used to generate and deliver power for the past 100 years.
But what the increasingly intense storms rolling across the country reveal is that – sometimes – what seems the cautious path is in fact the most risky.
With an estimated 9.5 million homes and businesses having lost power thanks to Sandy, the utilities faring best at restoring their customers to warmth and safety are those that have begun modernizing their grids with advanced information technologies, and using those “smart grids” to build resilience and reliance on community-based energy resources. I spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this week to discuss our outdated grid and the crucial need for modernization.
We’re already seeing proof these investments can reduce recovery time, keep crews and customers safer, and save lots of money. Thanks in part to federal stimulus grants, a number of utilities are embedding sensors, communications and controls across their networks. On the power lines that it has helped prevent cascading disasters like the one that knocked out power to 55 million people in 2003, when a single Ohio tree fell on a power line. Automated systems can detect a fault, cordon it off and reroute power flow around it.
Digital “smart” meters, capable of two-way communications, have also proved their worth: providing utilities real-time, granular visibility into their networks, without resorting to (often failing) phones or trucks dispatched on wild goose chases. Programmed to send a “last gasp” signal when they lose power, those meters have enabled rapid diagnostics – pinpointing exactly which homes or blocks were out, where the break had occurred – and expedited repairs.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, for instance, has installed about 10 percent of its planned 1.3 million smart meters. Linked to a “smart command center” borrowed from sister utility ComEd of Illinois (with whom EDF has been working on developing a set of performance metrics for its grid investments), the meters are telling them when their power restoration efforts have been successful or when further troubleshooting is needed. Without smart meters, they’d have to phone customers to ask if the power is back on. In storm conditions, according to Jeannette Mills, BG&E’s VP of Customer Operations, two-thirds of those calls go unanswered, which means they have to dispatch crews block by block across the region. This time, they’ve been able to ping the meters, asking “are you on?” Mills reports “a much higher rate of success getting through to smart meters than we do reaching customers by phone” enabling far more efficient dispatch of crews.
Utilities with smart grids have also kept customers better informed. A Pennsylvania Power and Light customer described to Smart Grid News how the real time tracking enabled by smart meters allowed him not only “to check on repair status for my own home (with crew on site info and estimated time to repair) … but also remotely online check the status of our two rental houses without having to physically drive to each to check them out."
One of the first utilities to demonstrate a smart grid’s resilience was Alabama Power, which was slammed in April 2011 by 30 tornadoes across 70 miles with winds up to 190 mph. The twisters left 400,000 without power and thousands of poles, wires and substations damaged or destroyed. But by using its 1.4m smart meters to locate the outages and prioritize repairs, the utility restored all of its customers within a week. It also drives 4 million fewer miles each year.
The security benefits of a smarter, more resilient grid have caught the attention of the U.S. military. It has begun installing smart grid technologies on bases so they can function as “microgrids”: decoupling from the commercial grid in the case of a natural or manmade disaster and maintaining vital homeland security operations. The bases will also become reliability resources themselves, capable of supplying power to the grid, or reducing demand, at times when the grid is stressed.
Most importantly, these smart grids will enable the military to meet its aggressive goals for shifting to low-carbon, domestic energy resources, particularly renewable energy on or near bases. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has set a goal for the service to get half its power from renewable resources by 2015. A smart grid will be absolutely critical to enabling the integration of millions of smaller, regional resources, and for managing the on-again, off-again character of the wind and sun.
The Secretary’s leadership reflects his recognition of the greatest risks that come from sticking to our tried and true ways of making and delivering power: the national security threats posed by climate change. These include the threats we’ve seen this last week, again, from rising seas and extreme weather, as well as the casualties incurred by troops having to protect vulnerable fuel supplies, and the acceleration of instability and conflict warned of in a 2010 DOD report. When it comes to power, the greatest risks will come from failing to be bold.