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Hurricane Sandy: testing grid assumptions

By: Phil Carson |

It’s déjà vu all over again.

I mean to be wry, not cute, because the picture is sobering: Extreme storm. Widespread outages. Millions without power for indefinite periods. Then, the debate: what’s it all mean?

Glance back at last fall’s coverage, if you need a reminder that related smart grid discussions are becoming a bit cyclical. (See “Lessons Learned On the Storm: Last Year’s Storm,” for a discussion that combined thoughts on extreme storms this past spring with those from last fall’s killer storms.)

And let me publicly express what I believe are virtually everyone’s sincere thanks and best wishes to all the utility and public safety people on the front lines this week and in days to come as they clear the wreckage and restore normalcy.

Events on the scale of Hurricane Sandy—perhaps ten million without power, from West Virginia to Maine, and dozens dead—force us to reexamine many things. First, for me, is community. That begins with family. My folks are in their mid-80s and they live back East, directly in the storm’s path but mercifully far from the coast. They lost power Monday night and regained it midday yesterday, after “only” 48 hours. My folks’ power was restored as they were in the process of moving to the home of a friend, who’d bought a generator after last fall’s double whammy hit the Northeast. They could see that nearby neighborhoods were not yet as fortunate.

The 20-minute drive to the friends’ house had taken my dad nearly an hour because innumerable streets remained closed due to toppled trees. He had a freezer full of food and my mom’s medicine, which requires refrigeration. My niece just moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, to take a job in New York and Hoboken was cut in half by flooding that mixed sea water, river water and raw sewage. My cousin, the Great Fredini, lives in Brooklyn and that cannot be fun right now. Fortunately, everyone reported that they were okay. My folks are pretty game and my niece always lands on her feet. The Great Fredini used to perform as a sword swallower and magician so, basically, I don’t worry about him.

But community extends outward from family to neighborhood to town and city, state and nation and the scale of Hurricane Sandy reinforced the notion of interdependency, which has implications for our shared electric grid.

A couple of thoughts here. First, the scale of the event and its impact. Just as the power sector is no longer fixated on inefficient investments to meet infrequent and short-duration annual peak loads, so the public and politicians need to understand and acknowledge that a ubiquitous grid cannot be sufficiently hardened to withstand a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

That said, a number of issues still arise. The fundamental issue is that if extreme storms become the norm, and I write “it’s déjà vu all over again” yet again, anytime soon, we’ll have to return to the climate change discussion for real. We have to reject the goofy noise in favor of sober discussion. For the power sector, there’s no dividing that issue cleanly into its two parts: how to deal with the effects of climate change, including extreme storms, and how, possibly, to deal with the causes of climate change.

The same methods that make it possible to fly, put a rover on Mars and create life-saving medicines are the same methods by which anthropogenic climate change has been implicated. Is that conclusion sound? Are there economically sensible ways to deal with it? These questions are difficult but will only fester if swept under the rug.

Further, the fundamental drivers for smarter grids are closely tied to the climate change discussion: the modernization of aging infrastructure, the ability to integrate digital technology, the desire to move away from fuels with high carbon emissions, the prudence of adding sustainable sources to the mix and the vision of a self-healing grid, all are tied in.

Yet in the face of mass, physical destruction – trees and, thus, power lines downed by high winds, substations flooded by sea surges—there’s a limit to what the addition of intelligence can do for the grid.

So it will be up to state regulatory commissions charged with ensuring “reliable” power (safety and low-cost, of course, being the other two responsibilities) to analyze the strategies, preparations, effectiveness and missteps of the regulated utilities under their jurisdiction as they dealt with the recent hurricane’s effects. A lot of that review will focus on how well people planned for and responded to a dynamic weather event whose path and effects are unpredictable. The other piece is the design and implementation of technology in the field.

First, consider the strategic part. Where utilities have demonstrated effective practices, let’s see the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) or another pertinent group, gather and disseminate best practices. On the technology in the field, the power sector badly needs legitimate, peer-reviewed case studies that establish hard facts regarding the efficacy of advanced metering infrastructure, distribution automation, data analytics and other “smart” practices, all free of vendor bias.

Side-by-side comparisons of system performance between largely electro-mechanical grids and highly automated systems—which may well exist at some utilities—should yield insights into the relationship between smart grid investments and greater resilience. I imagine it’ll be very difficult to remove the variable of organizational performance and storm-related anomalies to reach conclusions. But it’s an exercise that may result in better investments over time, particularly if extreme storms become the new norm.

The other factor that’s hard to neutralize is vendor spin. Any time an event—an election, a giant storm, whatever—claims the headlines for several days, vendors by the boatload spring from the woodwork and make their pitches, however tenuous. One of my favorites this time included a meter-to-cash company that suggested their product would aid restoration efforts in the future. The reason given was that if you have cash, of course, you’re better prepared to modernize the grid and weather the storm, etc. (Obviously this suggestion conflates operating cash flow with raising and investing capital, but I digress.)

Actually, in a way, that is part of the debate that should arise after Hurricane Sandy, but before the next killer storm: whether grid modernization makes the grid more resilient and speeds outage detection and restoration. The many claims, as well as intuition, need to give way to steely-eyed analysis.