Power lines

Could a smarter grid withstand storms like Sandy?

A week after Hurricane-turned-superstorm Sandy hid the East Coast tens of thousands remained without power, disrupting everything from the election to gasoline supplies.

We can’t prevent violent weather, but a smarter and stronger electric grid could help mitigate its impact by minimizing damage and speeding recovery, said Massoud Amin, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.

The Energy Department is overseeing efforts to develop and implement a national smart grid power infrastructure, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has pumped billions of dollars into the public-private sector effort. The result could be fewer and shorter headaches and heartaches in the wake of damaging storms.

“The current infrastructure is an amazing achievement of engineering for the 20th century,” said Amin.

But changes in business models, fragmented regulatory oversight and a demand for electricity that is outpacing capacity have left the grid inadequate for the 21st century. The result is an unnecessarily fragile system in which failures cascade to spread outages, cause additional damage and delay restoration.

Amin, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers who chairs the IEEE Smart Grid newsletter, for nearly 15 years has been advocating the idea of a self-healing grid that could monitor and respond quickly to conditions, minimizing damage with near-real time adaptive behavior.

It would not prevent outages. “When a storm hits a populated area you are going to need crews on the ground. What the self-healing grid would do would be to localize the area of disruption,” Amin said. “It could help reduce outages dramatically, by at least an order of magnitude.”

This would require end-to-end upgrades of the system, from the fuel source through generation, distribution and transmission, down to the consumer premises. But it could improve monitoring and automate decision making to provide:

  • Real-time monitoring and reaction to system conditions so the system can tune itself to an optimal state.
  • Measurements on the system made 20 times a second rather than the current rate of every three or four seconds.
  • The ability to anticipate problems by looking for anomalies in the system and predicting their impact and the results of various responses.
  • Rapid isolation of problems through automated action to limit damage.

Such a fix would not come cheap. In addition to the new technology to monitor and run our systems, North America needs an additional 42,000 miles of new high voltage transmission lines to incorporate new capacity and integrate local and non-traditional energy sources, such as solar and electric power, into the system.

“We need about $30 billion a year for 20 years to enable the smarter, stronger grid,” Amin said.

The results would be worth the investment, he said. Electric outages current cost the nation from $80 billion to $180 billion a year in productivity and spoilage, not counting damage to physical infrastructure. Amin estimates that a self-healing grid could cut that figure by $49 billion a year, and that a projected improvement in system efficiency of 4.5 percent would produce additional savings of $20.4 billion a year. The effort also could create thousands of jobs.

Overall, Amin estimates that, a self-healing grid would return about $3 to $6 for every $1 spent, and would cost only about one-tenth the amount it would require to bury distribution and transmission lines.

Investment, research and implementation on the needed technologies already have begun. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2010 provided $3.4 billion for a Smart Grid Investment Grant program, and the energy industry has spent an additional $4.4 billion. Much of the money is going to installation of smart meters in customer premises to help enable better monitoring and load control. Further upstream in the system, phasor monitoring units are being installed to monitor conditions at generation and distribution facilities and lines.

“We need to speed this up,” Amin said. “I cannot imagine that in the United States we should have to learn to cope with blackouts.” The ability to cope is useful, but as a strategy it is inadequate.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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