Extreme weather and power outages: why yesterday's solutions don't cut it today

Wed, 2014-05-21 06:00 -- Jesse Berst


Power outages are costly – even those brief blips when the lights flicker momentarily. S&C Electric VP Mike Edmonds suggests what may seem like a momentary nuisance to most of us can cost the U.S. economy $52 billion each year.

How? Here are his examples:

    • Computer systems often need to be restarted after a momentary outage, resulting in lost productivity and possibly lost sales.
    • The register at the store takes time to reload, for instance.
    • A pharmacy may lose its connection to central computer systems and take hours to resync before medicine can again be dispensed.
    • Factory automation equipment must be reset, and sometimes product in process may be lost depending on the sensitivity of the manufacturing process.
    • Computers and other electronic equipment at hospitals and medical facilities may also need to be rebooted, hindering their ability to deliver needed care to patients.

The costs pile on, of course, from the lengthier weather-related outages that bring business and commerce to a standstill. 

 

And that's why S&C VP Tim Qualheim makes the point that the tried-and-true readiness measures that utilities have long relied on – tree-trimming programs and mutual assistance pacts with other utilities, for example – certainly can help reduce the impact of storm-related outages. But as he puts it:  "Utilities aren’t going to move the needle on storm response very far with just the same-old solutions, without also incurring huge increases in operating expenses."

That's why the Smart Cities Council – of which S&C Electric is a Council Global Partner – strongly believes smart city planning efforts must include smart energy, whether a city owns its own utility or not. The economic losses are important, of course, but so are the pain and suffering that citizens endure during lengthy outages.

As Qualheim points out in his blog post, modernizing the electric grid is essential to improving response to extreme weather. As he explains:

"The latest grid technology is proving every day how it can make step change reductions in power outages resulting from severe weather. Self-healing smart grids are one example of this. They can restore power to many customers in seconds -- much faster than a utility crew can be dispatched and restore service, particularly in a major storm where roads might be blocked by fallen trees, flooding or traffic jams caused by unpowered traffic signals. Some of the newest self-healing technology can reduce even momentary outages."

Chattanooga, Tennessee, which Qualheim says has the most automated grid of any city its size in the U.S., is an excellent example. The February storm that impacted much of the Southeastern U.S.  this year dumped 11 inches of heavy wet snow on the city – and did significant damage to local trees, Qualheim says. The result? 36,000 power outages.

But Chattanooga’s smart grid, he says, prevented power outages or automatically restored electric service to about 40,000 other customers -- a 50% reduction in the number of customers who otherwise would have experienced a sustained outage. And the city's utility was able to restore power to everyone in roughly three days, which Qualheim says is 60% less time than it took during a similar storm in 1993.

If you'd like to learn more about the role of smart grids and smart energy systems in a smart city, download the Council's Smart Cities Readiness Guide (a free, one-time registration is required).

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Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to learn about the benefits you receive when you join the Council for free. Follow @Jesse_Berst and connect on LinkedIn.