Sandy Cripples The East Coast

11.04.12

How to Stop Blackouts: Smart-Grid Technology Could Ease Storms’ Aftermath

As the weather gets increasingly wild, experts say America’s outdated electrical infrastructure is overdue for a serious upgrade. How new power systems could pay off.

Hurricane Sandy may be the culprit for leaving close to 8 million people without power after ripping through the East Coast on Monday, but some experts say the blame should go toward the nation’s aging electric grid and power companies, which have failed to switch to more reliable “smart grid” systems that could fix blackouts in a matter of minutes, not weeks.

stop-blackouts-green
Lower Manhattan remains dark days after Hurricane Sandy. (John Moore / Getty Images)

“Our energy-generation and distribution infrastructure is outdated and often over capacity,” says climate strategist Boyd Cohen. “We are going to see increased frequency and intensity of storms, like Sandy, which will continuously put pressure on the grid.”

One of the most attributable causes of the increase in blackouts is America’s archaic electric infrastructure.

The U.S. has 215,000 miles of high-voltage power lines; 70 percent of those are more than 30 years old. The huge system requires a lot of manpower and funds—an estimated $1.5 trillion in the next 20 years—just to maintain as is.

Experts say a better solution is to throw it out entirely. Instead of revamping grids that don’t meet the country’s power and voltage needs, they argue for implementing a digital smart-grid system.

Smart grids work as a two-way conversation between homes and electric companies. Unlike today’s electrical grids, which can leave whole areas in the dark after a storm until the power company is called to fix the problem, smart grids automatically alert utilities when there’s a glitch, and fixes can often be made remotely.

Despite the benefits smart grids offer, the U.S. has been slow to adopt the technology.

“Smart grids will require the investment of billions of dollars of IT and power infrastructure. Utilities, most of which are formerly regulated monopolies, are not usually early adopters of technology,” says Cohen.

Not only is the technology expensive to implement and impossible to cut corners on, but few Americans are familiar enough with the systems’ advantages and don’t advocate for their implementation.

“Just like everything else, it’s sort of new. It’s a buzzword,” says Saeed Monemi, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Cal Poly Pomona. “The concept is new. That’s why some companies are reluctant to do it.”

Some say the most successful means to get regions and states to adopt smart technology into their electrical infrastructure is through federal incentives and grants. Many are already in place. As part of 2009’s stimulus, $4.5 billion was allocated to 140 smart-grid projects across the country, including dozens in Texas and California.

“Obviously any policy that includes funding or incentives for investment in smart-grid infrastructure is very useful. Most major technology transformations require subsidies or incentives in their early development in order to get to scale. The benefits of smart grids warrant such federal support,” Cohen says.

Illinois is at the forefront of smart-grid test-pilot programs. The state’s utility, Commonwealth Edison, or ComEd, recently helped push through legislation that would let the company establish and run smart grids at a slightly higher utility rate.

“The electrical grid isn’t as strong as it needs to be for the violent storms we’re seeing in the age of climate change and rising temperatures.”

A ComEd spokeswoman told a local paper that if smart systems had been in place during the state’s record storms last summer, “fewer customers would have seen outages, and thousands of customers may have never experienced an outage. With the June 21 storm, we estimate that 100,000 customers would have never experienced an outage.”

Fears of climate change are another factor. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently cited global warming as the reason why he endorsed Barack Obama for president after Hurricane Sandy struck the city. Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland has said he also considers the climate in the nation’s need for electrical updates.

“Our electric grid was fine for withstanding the storms of the ’80s,” O’Malley told The Daily Beast. “It’s not as strong as it needs to be for the violent storms we’re seeing in the age of climate change and rising temperatures.”

Monemi says the need for the smart-grid technology will ultimately drive its adoption here.

“The demand is definitely there. People are asking for more currents, power, and voltage, and it’s just not there. The trouble and outages speak for themselves too. People want to see an immediate fix for their [blackouts]. They don’t even want to wait hours, and sometimes they have to wait weeks.”