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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
(Page 2 of 4 )
Public works crews remove a large tree from power lines after Hurricane Sandy pa

Even so, experts say the smart grid did help in tangible ways—though the utilities haven't yet quantified the benefit.

"The utilities that had started down the path of grid modernization fared much better in terms of being able to avoid outages at the edges where the storm didn't cause complete devastation but was disruptive," said Miriam Horn, who directs the smart grid initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund.  

Pepco, which provides power to nearly 800,000 customers in Maryland and the District of Columbia, was one of the utilities that cited smart meters as a benefit in Sandy's aftermath. More than 130,000 of Pepco's customers lost power after the superstorm's winds sent trees and limbs crashing on power lines. By Oct. 31, two days after the storm, the vast majority of customers had their lights back on

Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal said the utility had activated more than 400,000 smart meters when Sandy hit (about half of its customer base). The ones knocked off line sent the utility a last-gasp message just before they went dead. Those alerts allowed Pepco to automatically add those sites to the repair order queue.

Beal said "power-is-back" alerts allowed the utility to immediately close out 60,000 repair orders without having to verify the restoration with a call or by dispatching a crew.

Smart Grid and Renewable Energy

Most experts agree that smart grids will pave the way for more renewable power and distributed generation like small-scale rooftop solar arrays.

Unlike fossil fuel plants, which provide a steady flow of electricity to the grid, solar and wind energy systems deliver power to the grid intermittently, when the sun shines or the wind blows. The swings in power production (when a cloud temporarily shades a solar system, for example) are hard to manage on today's grid. And without proper controls, a region with a lot of solar production can overwhelm the system on a sunny day.    

Because most of today's power grids don't have smart controls, regulators severely limit the amount of renewable power that can be connected to the grid. Current grids also automatically shut down renewables when the grid is under duress to protect workers from being injured by uncontrollable inflows of power. That engineering safeguard rendered thousands of solar panels useless in New Jersey—the nation's No. 2 solar state—after Sandy ravaged the region.

Smart grid technologies, by contrast, tip off operators to any potential disturbances so they can keep the flow of electricity balanced by adjusting and rerouting power or by changing the location where power is being added to the grid.

Cost of a Smart Grid

Massoud Amin, a leading smart grid expert and an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, estimates the United States will have to invest $30 billion a year for the next 20 years to get a smarter grid, according to his own calculations.

About one-quarter of those dollars would be spent just to keep the old grid from collapsing, including power line repairs, substation upgrades and regular maintenance work. The rest of the money would go to replacing clunky, decades-old analog equipment with digital sensors, devices, meters and other smart grid components.

Separate estimates by the Electric Power Research Institute put the cost of modernizing the grid between $338 billion and $476 billion over the next 20 years. The institute has said that while the bulk of those costs will be passed on to consumers, those customers could reap up to $2 trillion in benefits over the same period through greater grid reliability, energy-efficiency improvements and improved integration of renewables and plug-in electric vehicles into the grid.

Cost of Doing Nothing

The price tag of a smart grid is high, but the costs of maintaining the status quo are even higher. That's in part because more frequent storms and an aging, overloaded and unprotected grid will cause increasingly costly outages.  

According to Amin, outages and power disruptions cost the U.S. economy between $80 billion and $188 billion a year as businesses and public transportation are forced to close down and grocery stores and other shops have their inventories melt and spoil. That doesn't include the cost of fixing damages to the grid infrastructure.

Sandy alone may have caused $30 billion to $50 billion in economic losses along the East Coast, according to Eqecat, which tracks hurricanes and analyzes their impact.

It's not the first time the region has suffered power outages in part because of the grid's shortcomings. In 2003, an estimated 55 million people lost power in the Northeast and in Canada after overgrown trees brushed a high-voltage power line in Ohio, causing it to shut down. "Because there was no ability for grid operators to see what was happening, that [outage] cascaded across the United States," said Horn of the Environmental Defense Fund.

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