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A Smart Grid Primer: Complex and Costly, but Vital to a Warming World

Transforming the archaic power network to a smart grid has taken on added urgency post-Sandy. What upgrades are needed, why and what's the holdup?

By Elizabeth Douglass and Maria Gallucci

Dec 4, 2012
Public works crews remove a large tree from power lines after Hurricane Sandy pa

A week after superstorm Sandy left a huge swath of the East coast without electricity, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unleashed a blistering critique of his state's utilities, calling their restoration efforts inadequate and deriding the electric system as "archaic and obsolete."

The vast and lengthy power outage isn't the first disaster to expose weaknesses in the nation's aging electric grid. But Sandy—and the prospect of climate change fueling more storms like her—has added a sense of urgency to fixing the power system and has drawn politicians and the public into the debate over how to do it.

"We need to seriously overhaul the energy regulatory and power distribution in this state," Gov. Cuomo said last month as he announced an investigation into utilities' storm preparations. "Let's make the changes we need to make, and let's do it while we are still in the moment."

Cuomo's post-Sandy wish list is sure to include transforming the state's antiquated power network to a smart grid that's capable of sensing, reporting and automatically adapting to problems anywhere in the electrical system. Such upgrades are a complex and costly undertaking. But the need for them—in New York and across the country—is becoming hard to ignore.

Experts say a modern grid wouldn't have fared much better against the physically destructive powers of Sandy's fierce winds and surging floodwaters, but a smart power system could have preserved electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers by preventing storm-induced outages from spreading to adjacent areas. In addition, a smart grid could have cut economic losses by speeding up reconnections for homes and businesses.  

There are major benefits in normal weather, too. Adding equipment to monitor grid conditions, relay the information to grid operators and automatically make adjustments could help maintain day-to-day reliability, prevent cascading blackouts, pave the way for the widespread use of rooftop solar and accommodate fleets of electric cars.

A transition to a smart grid has been under discussion among regulators and power utilities for years, but progress has been slow and spotty. The primary hurdle is the enormity of the project—and the price tag that goes with it. There are also thorny regulatory and policy complications and cybersecurity and privacy issues.

Here's a primer on the nation's move toward a smart grid.

Today's Grid

The nation's grids are a patchwork of interdependent, separately managed networks that are wasteful, overloaded and increasingly fragile. They're heavily dependent on 40-year-old equipment that's operating beyond life expectancy. Compared to advances in telecommunications networks, they're only marginally more sophisticated than the grids first energized 100 years ago.

In most cases, today's power network depends on large distant power plants to generate electricity. High-voltage transmission lines carry the power to cities, where it passes through a network of lower-voltage, neighborhood distribution lines and then into individual homes and businesses. The distribution lines, which run along local streets and are often surrounded by trees, are especially vulnerable in storm situations. A tree limb hitting a power line in the wrong place can send entire neighborhoods into darkness.

Smart Grid

A smart grid includes a mix of digital equipment, sensors, two-way data communications and software programs that are deployed in grid control centers, on the power network and in people's homes to give utilities a real-time picture of grid conditions and an early warning of problems that can lead to blackouts.

A variety of digital smart grid sensors can constantly measure and react to heat, light, magnetism, ambient temperature, voltage, current, moisture and other physical characteristics in the network. Newly installed phasor measurement units provide readings on grid conditions 30 times per second, compared to once every few seconds on the old grid. The devices can constantly tune the grid to an optimal state, and when there's a disturbance, automation technologies in substations and control centers react faster than a worker could.

Smart meters, meanwhile, are installed in homes, transmitting energy use data back to utilities in 15-minute intervals. Web programs let customers see how much energy their homes are gobbling and where they could use energy efficiently. About 36 million smart meters—one in every three U.S. households—have been installed, according to IEE (formerly the Institute for Electric Efficiency). The number could jump to 65 million meters by 2015.

Smart Grid and Superstorm Sandy

Utilities and smart grid experts were quick to point out that an already upgraded power network would not have prevented the massive power outage that came with Sandy and left millions of East Coast residents without electricity for weeks.

Chris Olert, a spokesman for New York's Consolidated Edison Company, put it bluntly: "No piece of the smart grid is waterproof or storm proof ... the smart grid would not have stopped 12-foot walls of water." The utility has received nearly $200 million from the Department of Energy to implement smart grid projects, which are still being deployed. As part of a related pilot program, Con Edison has deployed 1,500 smart meters.

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