PPL Electric spent the past three years working on a $38 million smart grid project that would bring automation to its territory in south-central Pennsylvania.

The investment, aided by $19 million from the federal government as part of ARRA funding, automated 50 distribution circuits and ten substations that serve about 60,000 customers. The project has resulted in a 38 percent improvement in service reliability so far.

PPL installed automated capacitors and circuit switches, communications network, a new distribution management system (DMS) from Alstom and an upgraded SCADA network. The choice of Alstom is a departure from initial reports that PPL had chosen GE for its DMS in 2010.

Although the project has offered impressive results so far, the real test will be when the next large storm comes through. This is also just the beginning for PPL, which wants to automate all of its distribution circuits by the end of 2018. PPL Electric is a subsidiary of PPL Corporation (NYSE: PPL), which operates in the U.S. and U.K.

“It’s a very good investment if the DMS and IT are scalable,” said Ben Kellison, smart grid analyst with GTM Research. That is the plan, according to PPL, which will use the new DMS to help system planners understand loading on different equipment to better plan reliability improvements.

“Our five-year business plan includes targeting circuit upgrades in areas that will realize significant reliability improvements,” said Dave Bonenberger, PPL's vice president of Distribution Operations. 

The five-year plan comes with a much higher price tag: $3.8 billion over five years to upgrade infrastructure and improve reliability. Like Public Service Gas & Electric, which announced a $4 billion grid resiliency plan, the spending will have to come with noticeable grid improvements.

Not only will the average consumer need to be able to understand where the money is going, but utilities will also have to start having solid numbers -- both in terms of outages avoided and dollars saved -- and will have to proactively share those figures with customers.

And sometimes, as we recently saw in Chattanooga, that’s still not enough to show some people that grid investment is worth it.