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Is the Smart Grid Useful in Disasters?

During Hurricane Irene I found myself outrunning the storm as I drove from Washington, DC to my home north of Boston after delivering my son to college. With more family in New Jersey and New York, including another son living in a NYC evacuation zone, I listened to the news throughout the 10-hour drive home.

A standard feature of the storm coverage was local utilities describing their storm preparation plans. Headed up the coast, we heard comments from PEPCO, BG&E, PECO, PSE&G, ConEdison, Northeast Utilities, NStar, and National Grid. Not surprisingly, none of these touted their smart grid among storm preparation plans. I wondered how these would fare against a very angry Mother Nature.

One promise of the smart grid is reducing the number of “truck rolls” to perform certain tasks, which would presumably translate into fewer trucks and fewer people needed to populate those trucks. This follows a similar trend in the telecom industry, where wireless and broadband advances mean fewer traditional phone lines as well as a lower headcount required to maintain those lines. This is the underlying tension behind the strike by 45,000 Verizon workers, another recent East Coast phenomenon. I saw plenty of “truck rolls” during my race home, in the form of dozens of utility-truck caravans traveling from distant Midwest utilities, getting positioned to help in the looming restoration marathon. It occurred to me that no amount of smart-grid technology was going to replace all those downed poles, reconnect broken transmission lines, or drain flooded substations. People – working long shifts – would be doing that.

So is the smart grid useless during natural disasters? Not at all. Post-Irene discussions with a number of industry contacts indicate that many smart-meter deployments were key to restoration management, specifically individual restoration confirmations, allowing more efficient repair crew dispatch. Even partially commissioned systems were useful. Benefits may be tough to formally quantify, but most seemed pleased with how their systems performed under fire. However, the most common complaint of those who experienced long-term outages–including a couple of my Pike Research colleagues–was a lack of decent estimates as to when their power would be restored. Smart-grid technologies should help with this.

Fortunately, when I arrived home, our power and broadband service was on and stayed on without a glitch. Unfortunately, many family members and industry colleagues did not fare as well, landing among the 7 million or more than lost power during the storm. Interestingly, my unscientific friends-and-family survey indicates most had their electricity restored long before their phone or broadband services–in fact, some are still waiting.

So here’s a nod to the bucket truck brigades and those that support you – may the smart grid make your jobs faster and easier, but may it never be lost that in these times, it’s your head that counts.

Article by Bob Gohn, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.