Smart Grid Came to Rescue in Hurricane Sandy

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About 8 million people lost their power when Hurricane Sandy swept through and most of them had to call their utility to report the outage.

That's because the US has a centralized grid that's far from "smart," but investments in the US smart grid under President Obama's Recovery Act helped.

Utility Pepco, which serves Washington DC and parts of Maryland, was able to restore power for 130,000 homes in just two days after the hurricane hit.

Thanks to smart meters (two-way meters) installed in 425,000 homes, Pepco was notified by the meters' "no power" signal that allowed it to quickly pinpoint where outages were in the network. The signals arrived at their central monitoring post, allowing them to respond to customers quickly and effectively.

Then Pepco used advanced switches to automatically reroute power to where it's needed rather than having to fix the entire transmission line.

After power was restored, Pepco could "ping" meters to verify service - no need to send a crew or make a phone call.

There are now 400 centralized monitoring posts across the US and 1000 more are planned by the end of next year.

Another hallmark of the smart grid are microgrids, which are just getting off the ground. These smaller, distributed systems, which could run on renewable energy, would operate independently from the grid, allowing energy to be generated even if the broader network is down.

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) began enforcing Order 1000, which requires grid operators to collaborate on regional planning and allow independent developers to compete with traditional utilities in building new power lines.

Hurricane Sandy has brought widespread recognition of the lack of resiliency of the US grid, which is aging and antiquated.

The 2009 Recovery Act included $11 billion to upgrade the grid, the first investments in a US smart grid. But those funds will soon be depleted and increasingly frequent storms make it obvious that further aggressive investments are necessary. $1.5 trillion over the next 20 years are needed to modernize the grid, according to Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Long term, the key to a smart grid is moving from centralized to decentralized energy. "Solar panels on your house, geothermal heat pumps, small-scale but not home-scale technologies that are nearby," notes Peter Fox-Penner at consulting firm Brattle Group. "The less distance the power has to travel, the less vulnerability we will have to power lines coming down.

After Katrina, Lewis Milford, President of the Clean Energy Group, made the same recommendations he offers today:

Federal Level:

* Require federal mission critical facilities to use clean energy technologies.

* Require direct use of on-site clean energy technologies in reconstruction of critical public buildings.

* Develop federal-state partnerships to fund installations and facilitate joint procurement.

State & Local Levels:

* Investigate local opportunities to use on-site clean energy technologies at emergency shelters, first responder stations, and on other critical infrastructure sites.

* Legislatures could require installation of on-site clean energy technologies at state mission critical facilities.

* Create state incentives to support use of clean energy technologies at public facilities.

* Establish incentives for the private sector to install new on-site clean energy protection at hospitals and university laboratories.

"Those laws should require some form of technology innovation, so we move beyond our almost sole reliance on diesel generators that often fail, time and again. We need policies to encourage public and private facilities to do more to put new technologies like solar with batteries and fuel cells at customer locations, to create power onsite when the lines are down. Because the power lines will come down again, and the status quo is not working," he says.

His organization recently launched the Clean Energy + Bond Finance Initiative to get these critical partnerships going.

New York's new Energy Highway Blueprint appropriates $250 million for smart grid technologies to "create the most advanced energy management control center in the US."