The US recently experienced its second largest storm-related power outage, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. It affected approximately eight million customers along the country’s east coast. The worst-ever to hit US shores was Hurricane Irene which left nine million customers without power in 2011.
Smart Meter flexes its muscles
Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern utilities have been working hard to restore power and the smart meter has proven its worth. Although these meters can’t fix damaged power lines, they can detect and report outages, as well as verify that the power is back on after utility crews have reconnected the lines. This function is useful as sometimes several breaks in power lines may go unnoticed as crews could end up focusing only on the break closest to the substation. Smart meter software is also able to check on or “ping” all meters on the circuit to verify restoration without having to send out staff or make a phone call. Those without smart meters are forced to phone the utility to report the outage. Often, phone-calls and call-outs may be ruled out due to obvious difficult conditions.
If a smart meter does not respond and is without power, the utility will be notified by a “no power” signal which is transmitted to the utility’s central monitoring post. This information is collected without having to send crew members to the actual site.
The utility can also use advanced switches to automatically reroute power to where it is needed without having to first fix an entire transmission line.
Smart meter data, transmitted to the utility, can even be used to inform the public of the status of power outages in various areas. For example, Jacksonville (Fla.) Electric Authority uses Google Maps to let their customers know if there is power at schools after a storm.
Utility Pepco, serving the Washington DC and parts of Maryland, managed to restore power to 130,000 homes within two days after the hurricane hit. This is an impressive figure as many utilities told customers that it would take 10 days to restore power. The smart meters gave Pepco the ability to locate and respond to outages in the network in an efficient manner. Approximately 425,000 homes in Pepco’s catchment area have a smart meter.
There are currently 400 centralized monitoring posts across the US. An additional 1000 are being planned for the end of 2013.
US Grid Needs an Upgrade
Hurricane Sandy has highlighted major issues in the US grid which is “aging and antiquated”, according to Sustainable Business. Less than half of the country’s 48,000 distribution substations have some kind of automation.
The 2009 Recovery Act included US$11bn to upgrade the grid, the first investments in a US smart grid. However, these funds are running out and the country needs to increase its investments to withstand the increasing frequency of aggressive storms. Over the next two decades, the country’s grid needs US$1.5tn to be truly “smart”, according to Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. Phil Carson of Intelligent Utility Daily says that the process of building a “smart grid” has only just begun, with the deployment of sensors and controls, but the integration of systems and the application of data analytics that will deliver advantages is still “years and many dollars away.”
Although the smart meter is unable to prevent severe storms from damaging overhead lines, smart meters can assist utility crews to help shorten outages and make restoration more reliable. The data, received from smart meters, may also help utilities to understand the causes of power outages and help prepare the grid for future assaults by super storms which are becoming more frequent.