Smart Grid Can Outlast Extreme Weather Effects

Obama administration releases grid roadmap

Ken Silverstein | Feb 27, 2013


The Obama administration is linking improvements in the electrical grid with the increasing occurrence of aberrant weather patterns, all associated with climate change. To that end, it has just released its “progress report” detailing the steps that it has made and will continue to make to achieve its goals.

President Obama’s State of the Union spoke of accessing this nation’s energy wealth while also discussing the value of a “smart grid” whereby the efficient flow of electricity would allow for more alternative fuel sources and avoid detrimental blackouts. The twin causes are significant, he had noted, mainly because the earth is warming and leading to more hurricanes, floods and droughts.

“Going forward, the Administration will continue to work with states, the electric sector, and other stakeholders to modernize grid infrastructure, develop new tools for a clean energy economy, empower customers, and foster innovation,” writes John Holdren, director of science and technology at the White House. “In so doing, the United States will continue to lead the way toward a clean energy future.”

Holdren, whose comments were presented in “A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid,” goes on to point out that the 2009 stimulus plan allocated $4.5 billion to the facilitation of the smart grid. That has been matched by an equal amount from the private sector. With that, 13 million “smart meters” have been installed -- units that allow two-way communications between utilities and customers so that energy usage can be cut back during peak periods.

At the same time, the administration is trying to develop sophisticated transmission technologies for rural America as well as train a workforce to administer such a modern a system. One of its most significant endeavors, meantime, is combating threats to the grid via the internet. Critical infrastructure, in fact, is a target of those who seek to steal secrets from both the public and private sectors, or to potentially disrupt vital services as a way of bringing commerce to a halt. 

While the progress report does not address whether climate change is a manmade phenomenon or a natural event, the president has made clear his beliefs -- that the emissions from power plants and other industrial sources are the root causes. Regardless of one’s thinking, though, they should expect more turbulent weather events that will shake up the grid.

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The paper draws attention to the 2003 Northeast blackout, which was not the result of a catastrophic jolt but rather, the product of overgrown trees that had tripped a high-voltage line. The event started in Ohio but had rapidly spread northward and into Canada. In the end, 55 million people went without power. In New York City alone, it is estimated that it caused $10 billion in lost productivity.

“This event would have likely been contained to Northern Ohio if advanced grid sensors were place,” says Holdren. He says that the stimulus plan is deploying 800 of those devices that have the ability to allow grid operators to track in real time the entire transmission network. In simple terms, if electricity needs to be rerouted either because of congestion, fallen trees or extreme weather, grid masters can easily spot that and then work to avoid any issues.

One of the utilities that the progress report points to as an exemplary case study is that of Chattanooga-based Electric Power Board, or EPB. The effort is already paying off: When a June 2012 storm knocked out power to millions along the East Coast, EPB cuts its outages to half of what they had once been. At the same time, it had a 55 percent reduction in the duration of its blackout.

If the smart grid is to grow in value, it must be able to communicate with hundreds of thousands of devices throughout the system. The goal is to reduce outage times, which in turn, keeps economic activity humming. In the case of EPB, it says that its trials with the smart grid have cut brownouts by 40 percent. In other words, its installation of the appropriate "switches" and meters has boosted the local economy there by 40 percent -- a number that it says is "conservative."

If, for example, it cost $100 million to implement but it resulted in 40 percent more productivity, then the payback is quick. As for EPB, it says that it got a $111 million smart grid grant from the federal stimulus plan. It matched that grant with its own $111 million. The local distributor that is tied to the Tennessee Valley Authority says that it is rolling out 170,000 meters.

“Electric rates will be going up,” says Harold DePriest, chief executive of EPB, in a talk with this reporter during an earlier visit to the utility. “The smart grid can reduce that increase. But we should be careful to not promise that it will reduce rates.”

The hope is that the smart grid will help utilities limit their emissions while also producing energy savings. Power companies are making these investments with federal help. As for the Obama administration, it says that the forays are serving a multi-faceted purpose -- to mitigate the effects of climate change and to allow more green electrons to enter the wires, all while increasing energy efficiencies.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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"In the case of EPB, it says that its trials with the smart grid have cut brownouts by 40 percent. In other words, its installation of the appropriate "switches" and meters has boosted the local economy there by 40 percent -- a number that it says is "conservative.""

If EPB experienced continuous brownouts and those brownouts halted the local economy 29% of the time because of their severity, then eliminating those severe brownouts might boost the local economy by 40%.

However, it is highly unlikely that EPB is experiencing continuous brownouts. If EPB were experiencing brownouts 10% of the time and then were able to reduce that brownout duration by 40%, the resulting maximum potential boost to the local economy would be ~4%.