Modernizing the Grid: Part I

Hurricane Sandy tested the resiliency of power-grid systems

25 September 2013

In the months since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast with unprecedented fury, much discussion has focused on questions about power restoration in the Northeast: Did the smart grid help? Or, would a smart grid have helped?

The questions are valid, if vague. And the short answer is unsatisfying: it depends. A longer answer is more helpful because it allows us to consider the drivers of grid modernization, the concepts governing a “self-healing” grid, and what we need to do to maximize the benefits of future investments. 

Detailed, post-event analysis will be needed to ascertain whether smart-grid technology did in fact soften Sandy’s impact or speed up power restoration. Meanwhile, let’s place the storm and its impacts in context. 

First, it needs to be understood that a massive, physical assault on the scale of the hurricane is bound to overwhelm the power infrastructure, at least temporarily. No amount of money or technology can guarantee uninterrupted electric service under such circumstances.

Second, the U.S. power industry is just beginning to adapt to a wider spectrum of risk. It is noteworthy that both the number and frequency of annual, weather-caused, major outages have increased since the 1950s. Between the 1950s and 1980s, those outages increased from two to five each year. In the period from 2008 to 2012, those outages increased to between 70 and 130 per year. In that five-year period, weather-related outages accounted for 66 percent of power disruptions, which affected up to 178 million customers, or meters. (See “U.S. Electrical Grid Gets Less Reliable,” published in IEEE Spectrum, for more on this.)

This adaptation process continues as we implement strategies, technologies, and practices that will harden the grid and improve restoration performance after a physical disturbance. The investments so far in advanced metering infrastructure and the coming wave of investment in distribution automation are but the beginning of a multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar effort to achieve an end-to-end, intelligent, secure, resilient, and self-healing system.

Third, cost-effective investments to harden the grid and support resilience will vary by region, utility, the legacy equipment involved, and even by the function and location of equipment within a utility’s service territory. 

In Sandy’s case, coastal areas were subjected to storm surges and flooding, while inland, high winds and lashing rain produced the most damage. Improved hardening and resilience for distribution systems in those different environments will take different forms. Underground substations along the coast may have to be rebuilt on the surface, while further inland it might be more cost-effective to perform “selective undergrounding” for some overhead lines.

The one generalization we can make, however, is that the pursuit of an intelligent, self-healing grid has some common characteristics that will make the grid highly reliable in most circumstances—certainly in cases where disruptions are less catastrophic than Hurricane Sandy. Additional, location-specific steps based on rational risk assessment also can be taken by utilities and customers.

The economic benefits of a modernized grid will accrue as investments are made. Indeed, in my view, our 21st century digital economy depends on us making these investments, regardless of the prognosis for more extreme weather to come as our climate changes.

This article is the first in a series on “Modernizing the Grid.” The next post will discuss the costs and value proposition in upgrading to a smart grid system. Follow us @IEEEInstitute, Facebook, or sign up for our E-newsletter to get notified of upcoming posts.

Massoud_Amin Photo: Massoud Amin

Massoud Amin is an IEEE senior member and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute, in Minneapolis, where he is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He is chair of the IEEE Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, and serves as chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter.


Top Photo: iStockphoto

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