At Connecticut Light & Power, most of the preparations for Hurricane Sandy have involved tree-trimming, lining up extra work crews and sandbagging critical substations that lie in the flood zone. The utility is aiming to have a far different outcome than one year ago, when an October snowstorm left 800,000 Connecticut residents without electricity. CL&P is hardly alone in its Hurricane Sandy planning.
Jersey Central Power and Light told reporters on Friday that outages from Hurricane Sandy could last more than a week. One computer model estimated more than 10 million people across the Eastern Seaboard will lose power as the category 1 hurricane slams into the coast close to a full moon. However, that model is built from looking at outages from previous hurricanes, so increasing smart grid technologies could help to dull the magnitude of that prediction.
Utilities from Virginia to Massachusetts are already reporting power outages, with more than 30,000 without power by one report. Connecticut Light & Power had about 7,700 customers without power Monday morning. Long Island Power Authority had more than 20,000 people in the dark midday Monday.
For utilities that have made smart grid investments, especially in distribution automation or smart meters, the technology could help identify outages more quickly or minimize the spread. But in the case of Hurricane Sandy, utilities are mostly highlighting more old-fashioned (but still critical) preparations, such as preparing crews, rather than toting high-tech systems that will improve restoration efforts or cut down on outages all together.
Earlier this month, EPB Chattanooga calculated it had saved $1.4 million during a single storm due to its investment in self-healing feeders. Pacific Gas & Electric is investing $360 million to add technology on its distribution grid circuits, which is expected to cut outages by 77 percent. Neither utility are in the path of Sandy.
After Hurricane Irene, Long Island Power Authority accelerated implementation of its new outage management system, which will put a real-time functionality on all of LIPA’s 980 feeders by the end of this year. Like New Jersey utilities, LIPA’s website warns that restoration could take seven to ten days. But if the new OMS is widely implemented, it could reduce restoration time. Atlantic City Electricity is also in the middle of a $37 million distribution automation project that could help isolate outages. For any utility that is investing millions of dollars, telling the story of success after big storms will grow increasingly critical.
But examples of smart grid investments changing the outcome of storms could still be few and far between. For some utilities, even minor investments, such as improved mobile apps to report and track outages, can make a difference in customer relations. Many utilities have found that Twitter and Facebook are powerful tools during outages.
At Vermont Electric Cooperative, just overhauling the utility's call center with updated technology and improving web offerings drastically cut down on angry customers. Dominion has its mobile outage app featured prominently on its homepage.
But just as this summer did not see prominent examples of end-to-end smart grid deployments coming to the rescue, Hurricane Sandy is likely to be the same. There may be individual examples of successes, but it is unlikely that the storm will be a turning point for an industry.
However, if there are widespread outages that last for days, as there were with Hurricane Irene and the derechos, regulators and angry utility customers may start to ask what else can be done beyond aggressive tree-trimming.
If nothing else, it should lead to even more streamline customer service offerings on web and mobile platforms.