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Sandy and the smart grid: who won?

If you're thinking I'm writing too much on Hurricane Sandy and the grid, you've got it backwards: the conversation is just beginning. Though a post-mortem on utility performance and the smart grid's role, if any, is premature, we can outline a few issues.

(You may be informed and/or amused by my posts last week, which included: "Hurricane Sandy: Testing Grid Assumptions," "After Storm, Power Sector at Crossroads," "Sandy: The Power Sector's 9/11," "Grid Design, Resiliency and Power at the Edge" and "Utilities and Us: Toward an Energy `Ecosystem.'")

Hurricane Sandy delivered an unprecedented physical assault on Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern utilities and not just the power sector. The conversation now developing, as utilities report to regulators and stakeholders assess the event and utilities' performances, will encompass energy fuels from natural gas to nuclear, and it will include telecom and water. Power is a big part of the picture and an enabler for other services such as drinking water, heating/cooling and communications, but let's keep in context. 

Those assessments will weigh preparation and planning, infrastructure health, the role of technology, people and processes. Do business continuity plans need a reset in the face of extreme weather? Should additional funds and efforts be expended to harden infrastructure and improve resiliency? Do end-use customers bear some responsibility for preparations and resilience in anticipation of extended outages after a massive storm?  

In the power sector, one question is: did smart grid technology aid in preparation, response and recovery from the hurricane? Another question: is the first question a fair one?

The short answer, taking the second first, is: of course! Stakeholders want to know whether their investments have been productive. We're all shelling out big time to modernize the grid. Didn't many utilities sell advanced metering infrastructure on the promise of customers "saving money" and increased reliability for the system? The first claim, based more on active energy management in the face of dynamic prices than the result of mere awareness of energy use data, remains somewhat theoretical as dynamic pricing remains scarce.  

The answer to the first question is that it's premature to say, but fair to conclude that generalizations are difficult. Where sea water flooded a substation vault, smart grid technology as we know it is of little use. Where tree damage in, say, leafy New Jersey—the suburbs raison d'etre—affected as much as one-third the shady canopy, the damage was so extensive that we'll all be fascinated whether millions of last gasps from smart meters really mattered. Did data from smart grid systems really enable utilities to better deploy field crews? 

The claim that smart grid technologies will increase reliability, in the face of massive physical destruction, was capped, and potentially knee-capped, by Sandy. Sure, under normal conditions—a line damaged by a single falling tree or a maintenance action with unintended consequences—smart grid technology should help pinpoint, isolate and address an outage, even a cause, and lead to more targeted and thus swifter restoration action. But a hurricane with the size and force of Sandy led to so many toppled trees, so much flooding and so much chaos, that recovery composed a cat's cradle of challenges that took time to untangle. Are automated switches and reclosers much help when large sections of the grid are purposefully taken down prior to the storm's impact to lessen damage?  

Utility leaders understandably have been busy overseeing the recovery and reporting in the aftermath of one of the worst storms to affect that large a population. Like a year ago, resignations are taking place. But I don't see any major utility figure taking to the airwaves and op-ed pages to address the lessons of the storm. 

Those lessons, off the top of my head, would include: 

  • An unprecedented physical assault on perhaps 10 states will have huge repercussions, including damage that must be addressed first, simply to enable the restoration of power. 
  • Grid modernization, a task measured by generations, is underway, but the process will continue for years and will require large, continuing investments. 
  • The process of building a "smart grid" has just begun, with the deployment of sensors and controls, but the integration of systems and the application of data analytics that will produce real advantages is still years and many dollars away. 
  • While the first century of the electric grid was characterized by spreading service to the most people at the lowest cost, the second century, beginning now, will be characterized by the digitization and increased hardening and resiliency of the grid.
  • Finally, (not sure a utility leader will say this) is that the grid, by nature, is vulnerable and the reliability and resiliency of a ubiquitous electricity supply will rely on all of us taking steps in concert. That includes the embrace and development of non-utility-based energy supplies and practices.   


Though utilities and vendors may well come forward with claims that smart meters, advanced metering infrastructure and outage management systems aided their response to the hurricane, I'd be skeptical at best. Let's not let a major catastrophe and, thus, an opportunity to learn from what might become the new norm of extreme weather, lead us into a rerun of the smart grid hype cycle. 

Let's scrutinize any claims and demand well-reviewed evidence for any technology that played a role in hardening and resilience during Hurricane Sandy. And let's begin an honest conversation about the limits of technology in extreme weather events and the long road for a smarter, modern grid and what elements deserve tactical and strategic investments. That will include the growing awareness among utilities that societal players must take matters into their own hands to ensure resilience in the face of future threats to the grid. 

Utilities will come to see investments by, say, cities and towns, the military, front line responders like police and fire and medical personnel, hospitals, universities and, eventually, building owners and homeowners in creating microgrids, even pico-grids, and distributed energy resources as beneficial. Utilities don't have the capital to do it all, nor will a centralized grid ever achieve the reliability that self-sufficient nodes can add. Coastal cities will need civic buildings that achieve self-sufficiency so they can double as storm shelters when the next big one hits. Electric vehicles may even gain market traction if they serve as mobile storage units. Handheld, hand-cranked units that inexpensively combine lights and radios and are capable of recharging cell phones will be developed and will sell like hot cakes next time around. 

Lots of angles to explore here, with a historic opportunity to reassess electricity's value to society and how we go about securing that value under duress.

Later this week, we'll look to the experts for an explanation of the integration and data analysis challenges that will mark the maturation of the smart grid, as well as alternative visions to the utility-centric, centralized grid model that suffered so badly at Sandy's hands. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily 

Dan Wilson's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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