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Can a Smart Grid Mitigate Power Outages?

Experts agree that blackouts like the one during Hurricane Sandy can be mitigated if the nation had a smart grid — but it’s also a people problem.

by / November 26, 2012
A satellite photo of New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania after the blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy. NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Rob Simmon.

Last year, a real-life “slumdog millionaire” won the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. One of the first items he procured was a $500 generator so he could have a continuous flow of electricity in a part of the world where interruptions are the norm. Although this isn’t usually a problem in the U.S., millions of East Coast residents experienced power loss in late October when Superstorm Sandy ripped through cities with wind speeds exceeding 60 mph.

New Jersey and New York City bore the brunt of Sandy’s wrath, which left more than 8.5 million customers in multiple states without electricity. Even two weeks after the hurricane made its impression, many residents were still without power. Further compounding the matter was the recent Nor’easter, which proved to be a temporary setback for utility companies urgently trying to restore energy.

But some believe the electrical blow could have been lighter. Smart grid experts agree that although natural disasters are inevitable, power outages can be mitigated if the nation’s electrical infrastructure were smart.

But what exactly is a smart grid and how can having one prevent future blackouts? Massoud Amin, director of the Technological Leadership Institute (TLI) and considered the father of the smart grid, says, the smart grid is a next-generation electrical power system that uses digital technologies — such as computers, secure communications networks, sensors and controls, in parallel with electric power grid operations — to enhance the grid’s reliability and overall capabilities. 

John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy, says a self-healing grid would react immediately to abnormalities.

It is this digital intelligence capability that makes it prime for preserving power during natural and man-made disasters. John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy, is a technical guru when it comes to the automation of intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), which  he said are the building blocks of having a self-healing a smart grid.

IEDs are multifunctional and have two components, McDonald said — the internal processing capability and the self-healing support capability, which enables two-way communications. Building a network of IEDs empower grid operators. “[They let you] know that you have a disturbance or a problem, figure out where it is, isolate it, restore service around and all that prevents cascading something more serious like a blackout,” said McDonald.

For example, if the nation’s electrical infrastructure were smart, Hurricane Sandy’s impact would have been minimized. Electric utilities would be empowered because they’d be able to detach energy systems that face potential vulnerabilities, instead of being reactive.

This is where microgrids come into play. Microgrids are localized power systems that can independently sustain themselves and disconnect and connect to the central electrical system, according to Datta Godbole, director of technology at Honeywell, a technology manufacturing company. 

In addition to be energy independent, microgrids also are beneficial to electrical providers. “You can potentially export power to the utility to help them out in case of need,” Godbole said. 

Another appealing aspect of having a microgrid is that it’s scalable. “The point is that you don’t have to build a big-bang microgrid right away,” Godbole said, “it can be done incrementally.” This approach is beneficial from both a production and financial standpoint.

Microgrid in Action

But do microgrids really work? Apparently so. Case in point: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and General Services Administration FDA White Oak campus in Maryland—home to a wealth of research projects and a microgrid. 

Datta Godbole, director of technology at Honeywell, says that microgrids allow for on-site power generation. 

Although still under construction, the campus has worked with Honeywell on its microgrid system, which started out with 5.8 megawatts, according to Godbole. “At this moment, we have 26 megawatts capacity operational and we are extending that even further in the latest round of development and it will go to almost 45 megawatts,” he said.

Last year, FDA White Oak leveraged its microgrid during the Wash-ington, D.C. earthquake and during Hurricane Irene. “When the earthquake hit last year, we reactively disconnected,” Godbole said. “So depending on how the power on the utility grid is flowing, depending on the stability of that power flow, we can disconnect and island ourselves.”

The campus also disconnected from the electric grid during Hurricane Sandy, maintaining power while hundreds of thousands in Maryland experienced outages.

People Problem

With microgrids already in use and high-profile hurricanes highlighting the need for energy security, it is possible that the nation’s grid could be comprised of microgrids in the next 25 to 50 years. But experts are looking at other possibilities as well, says Godbole.

However, it’s not simply a technology problem that needs to be fixed; there’s the human element, which can be stifling to smart grid growth. “We have technology that gives us this capability, but there is hesitancy on the part of the electric utility senior control center staff to close the loop on a software application, which means taking the human out of it,” said GE’s McDonald.  

McDonald, who has been in the electric and transmission and distribution industry for almost 40 years, said that the smart grid is too intricate and makes a case for human elimination.

Google’s Crisis Map

Google’s Crisis Map provides East Coast residents with shelter locations in their area and where to find gas stations that not only have gas, but also their inventory levels. Gas has become an even hotter commodity post-Sandy.

“The system is so complex that if it requires a human to be in the loop, you are not going to be able to react quickly in a storm type of condition,” he said, “there are too many things going on simultaneously for humans to keep up with it.” 

But the place that human intervention is needed is with policy and investment. McDonald notes that policy is a key driver when it comes to adoption. “In years where we had particular tax credits, there have been particular investment," he said, "and years when we had no tax credits, there has been no investment."

Future of the Grid

People aside, a significant contributor in having a smart grid is investment. In 2009, when President Barack Obama approved the stimulus package, $3.4 billion went toward smart grid modernization. Those federal funds were matched by private-sector resources, which brought the total to $7.8 billion — which went toward the nation’s Smart Grid Investment Program (SGIP).

Funds from SGIP have been used to upgrade electric transmission systems, electric distribution systems, advanced metering infrastructure and customer systems. 

Program results have been noted, according to the 2012 SGIP progress report, which states that The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga’s installation of 1,500 automated circuit switches and sensors have been used to reroute power. Projects are still under way, and will serve as lessons learned and best practices for jurisdictions wanting to make smart grid retrofits.

Another suggestion that has garnered a lot of attention since Hurricane Sandy is a grid infrastructure that runs power lines underground. Although very advantageous for high gusts disasters, McDonald said that it’s expensive. “The thing is as we go forward in time, a lot of the new construction is underground," he said. "But undergrounding lines is much more expensive then having them overhead.”

Still, the future of the smart grid is being worked out, and views of what it should look like vary throughout the industry. “I think that utilities are looking at many other possibilities, as well as how to improve their infrastructure and how to make it more robust,” Godbole said.

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Karen Stewartson

Karen Stewartson served as the managing editor of Government Technology for many years. She also contributed to Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.

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