How the smart grid underpins community resilience

Communities around the country are facing unprecedented challenges from weather and climate events. The winter of 2013-14 provides a case in point, with the polar vortex freezing much of the Midwest and Northeast, and even lashing out into the normally-temperate South. Much of the West has been experiencing historically dry conditions, including critical drought conditions in California. It is no surprise, then, that many communities are undertaking efforts to become more resilient by building systems that provide critical social and economic functions despite these weather- and climate-related stresses.

Underappreciated in many discussions of resilience is the significant progress our nation’s utilities have made in implementing “smart grid” technologies, and what that means for the reliability of critical electrical infrastructure – and the communities that it serves.

Blue GridFirst, a quick detour to explain the smart grid. Essentially, smart grid is a collection of computer and communication technologies that provide significantly more insight into the electricity grid’s operation and health, along with the ability to remotely – and often automatically – make changes to the system to improve reliability and efficiency. Our nation's electric grid is undergoing the same kind of modernization that the telephone system went through in the '80s and '90s.

This past winter was particularly brutal in the Eastern U.S., and many people had to run their furnaces more frequently than normal, leading to strain on the electrical grid. Not only was demand for electricity high to provide heating, but winter storms often led to trees falling on power lines and other physical impacts to the system. Smart grid technology made a significant difference in the resilience of the system in the face of these strains.

In the mid-Atlantic, Pepco's customers benefitted from its "automatic sectionalizing and restoration" project, which automatically rerouted power around faults like downed power lines. Since the project was begun in 2012, Pepco avoided 26,000 customer outages and 3.2 million outage minutes – nearly 2 hours per affected customer.

In the South, Chattanooga’s municipally-owned EPB prevented 40,000 customers from losing power during a winter ice storm, and restored power to those who did lose it 60% faster than they had been able to prior to their smart grid implementation.

These examples show the benefit to consumers in terms of keeping their lights on and getting them back on more quickly when they did lose power. But they only scratch theUS Lights
surface on the community resiliency impacts. By minimizing the size of outages, more local businesses can stay open to serve customers whose power has gone off. More people can provide shelter for their neighbors who have lost power and heat. By telling the utility’s field crews the exact nature and location of the problem, fewer trucks are needed, reducing electricity costs, traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart grid is truly an unsung – but critical – part of the important effort to build a more resilient America.

By K.C. Boyce | September 9, 2014 

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