Can We Ever Stop Worrying About Blackouts?

Only if utility companies are able to make their power grids smart enough to spot outages and “heal” themselves

A dark Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy
A dark Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ekonon

While it’s still not possible to definitively predict the course a nasty storm will take, we can say with absolute certainty that once it does arrive, two things will happen.

First, we will be treated to the last remaining example of slapstick on TV–weather reporters trying to remain upright in a gale. And second, we’ll see footage of a convoy of utility vehicles headed to the scene of the storm, the cavalry as bucket trucks.

The former is always loony, the latter usually reassuring. Yet there’s something oddly low tech about waiting for help from people driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Yes, our power grid has been described as a “model of 20th century engineering,” but what has it done to impress us lately?

Sadly, not much.

Lights out

In fairness, no amount of innovation could have prevented the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy, when more than than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. But this is an industry for which, until very recently, the only way an electric company would find out about an outage was when a customer called it in. Not quite cutting edge.

Given the likelihood that more frequent extreme weather will bring more blackouts–the number of major outages in the U.S. has already doubled in past 10 years–power companies know they need to go about their business in different ways, that they need systems that can predict problems and respond automatically.

And it’s not as simple as burying all power lines. That’s really not a very good option in many places, particularly cities, where the cost, according to the Energy Information Administration, could be more than $2 million per mile–almost six times what overhead lines cost. Plus, repair costs can be higher for underground lines and, of course, they’re more vulnerable to flooding.

So what’s the solution? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated. But it undoubtedly will involve making power systems much smarter and also using, in a much more strategic way, the enormous amount of data becoming available on how consumers consume and how grids perform.

Here are five examples of companies and governments exploring new ways to keep the lights on.

1) Is your grid smarter than a fifth grader? With a boost of more than $100 million in federal stimulus money, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee converted its power grid into what’s known as a “self-healing network,” which uses high-speed fiber optic lines to report what’s happening on the system. About 1,200 new “smart switches” track what’s going on with the power lines and make adjustments, if necessary.

Say a falling tree takes out a line. The nearest switch would cut off power to that immediate area and reroute it around the problem. Which means fewer homes and businesses would be affected.

That’s just how it played out during a big windstorm in the city last summer. About 35,000 homes went dark, but city officials say that without the smart switches, another 45,000 houses and businesses would have joined them. The city’s utility estimates that the new system saved it $1.4 million during that one storm alone.

2) Your lights may go out. Oh, and it’s 73 degrees: To get better real-time data on how weather affects its grid, San Diego Gas & Electric Company built 140 little weather stations throughout its network.

They provide up-to-date readings on the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction, and pay particular attention to any signs of wildfires that could bring down the network.

3) Where you go off the grid to stay on the grid: Next year, Connecticut will become the first state to help its cities and towns start building their own “microgrids.” These will be small, self-sustaining islands of power that run on state-of-the-art fuel cells.

The idea is that these systems, able to disconnect from the main grid, will be capable of providing electricity to police and fire departments, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, college campuses, shelters and other key businesses, even if the rest of the city loses juice.

4) Welcome to Texas, where even Big Data is bigger: By the end of the year, Oncor, the utility serving most of north Texas, will have installed more than 3 million smart meters in homes and businesses. When you consider that each of them sends data to Oncor every 15 minutes–in the old days the utility took a reading just once a month–well, that’s a whole lot of data. Add in all the grid sensors along the system’s 118,000 miles of power lines and that’s more data than…well, that’s a whole lot of data.

So Oncor has partnered with IBM, the King of Big Data, to install software that will make sense of the all that information and, in the process, allow the company to detect outages much more quickly.

5) A tweet in the dark: Finally, it should probably come as no surprise that now one of the more effective ways for utility companies to track outages is through Facebook and Twitter.

So in January, GE will make available new software called Grid IQ Insight and one of its features is the ability to superimpose social media data–namely tweets and Facebook posts–over a power company’s network. So utilities won’t have to wait for customers to call in blackouts; they’ll just see their tweets pop up on a map.

Video bonus: So, what is a smart grid, any how? Scientific American lays it all out for you.

Video bonus bonus: And I ask again: What is it about hurricanes that makes people act stupid?

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