Getting the Lights on Faster: Smart Grids in Times of Disaster

By Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal & Stephen Goldsmith • November 16, 2012

A version of this post originally appeared on on November 16, 2012.

Last year, Sandy claimed the title of the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history, and showed us the advantages and limitations of rigorous planning. The slow and arduous recovery faced by some East Coast communities has been in stark contrast with the impressive speed with which many others have been able to return to business as usual. New emergency procedures put in place at the local and state levels deserve a lot of the credit. These included shutting down infrastructure and battening the hatches to protect vital resources and prepare for recovery.

The storm taught us that the best way to plan for the truly unexpected will be by being prepared to improvise and by understanding that resilience in times of disaster isn't determined only by a static disaster plan but to a greater degree by being responsive to change. Being dynamic requires real-time data. Recent technologies are beginning to provide more access to this data, allowing analytics to find the patterns fast enough to make it useful during a disaster.

Smart grids, and particularly smart electric meters, played a promising role in improving disaster response and the speed with which power could be restored after Sandy passed. That role was small-scale and local, since electric utilities' conversion to smart-grid technology has been slower than desired, but the potential is there for the technology to have a much larger impact as these systems are rolled out more widely.

At best, phone calls and spotty service-outage reports can slowly piece together a hazy picture of the conditions of a power network. But smart meters, programmed to send out a "last call of distress" when power is lost, can automatically report service cuts. This gives a utility company instant access to regional maps of outages, allowing it to prioritize repair-crew mobilization and begin getting service back to customers without them even having to report an outage.

Smart meters also can help identify the locations of particularly tricky "nested" outages, when more than one break is affecting an area. Additionally, smart meters can automatically report getting back on line when power is restored, eliminating unnecessary calls between the utility company and customers or follow-up service-crew visits. Repair crews can move on to the next repair rather than spending time checking on their last one, increasing efficiency and reducing system repair time considerably.

Pepco, the electric utility serving Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Maryland, is crediting its partially implemented smart-meter system with helping get the power back on for its 100,000 customers affected by outages in the wake of Sandy. The store of information generated by the smart meters is not only available to the company's repair crews to inform their response but is also aggregated into a regional map available online to give customers a better idea of system conditions.

PPL Electric Utilities' smart meters allowed the company's Pennsylvania customers to check on the status of their power's return online and from the safety and comfort of remote locations, without having to trek out to potentially powerless homes or using the precious resource of repair-crew hours to do so. And while Baltimore Gas and Electric's smart-meter system is only 10 percent complete, the utility credits the program with facilitating much faster troubleshooting and with replacing phone calls to customers to check on service – calls that often go unanswered – with a quick and reliable stream of information.

Admittedly, there has been some resistance from citizens concerning installation of smart meters outside their homes. Worries range from a general fear of ‘big brother’ information gathering, to a more specific concern that meters generate damaging radio-frequency radiation – despite the fact that emission levels are much lower than those of wireless routers or cell phones. Some smart metering programs have allowed customers to temporarily opt-out as costs to potentially allow customers to keep their old analog meters are determined. Hopefully this time will also be used to find ways to make the meters more palatable through changing meters themselves, enhancing imaging and marketing to citizens, or tweaking the relationship between citizens, government, and utility agencies. The amount of information collected by the private sector on their customers for analytic purposes today is immense, and yet the sector experiences less resistance than the same moves made by the government. We can look to the private sector for inspiration as to how to make smart meters and grids more palatable to everyone.

Despite this small roadblock to full smart-grid deployment, the next time a major storm hits, there will be more examples of service-restoration improvements enabled by this technology. In the face of consumer suspicions and resistance to smart meters, utilities need to publicize these success stories to build support for continued smart-grid development. The more data that government and utilities can tap, the faster they can act and the more resilient communities can become.

Particularly in times of emergency, information availability and accessibility are key not only for power providers but for public officials responding to quickly changing circumstances, as well as for customers looking for clarity in the confusion of a disaster. The speed and granularity of the data informing decisions are crucial factors after a storm hits, and smart-grid technology can play a big role in supplying a steady and actionable stream of information – information that can get the lights back on faster.

About the Author

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is a joint MPP/MUP candidate at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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