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Sandy damage shows opportunity for smart grid technologies

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Friday, November 02, 2012

Officials from states along the U.S. eastern seaboard were well aware of the potential Hurricane Sandy had to disrupt power services on a huge scale, however, this knowledge alone was not enough to fully prepare for Sandy's critical blow, experts say.

According to Urgent Communications, if smart grid technologies had been in place across the entire Mid Atlantic and Northeast electric grids, utilities would have had a major advantage in understanding the exact causes of the outages, which would have greatly accelerated the process by which the companies restore power.

Now that the damage has been done, smart grid improvements are grabbing the attention of utilities, lawmakers and municipalities as they look for ways to better defend themselves against natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

According to the news provider, there are about 48,000 substations strewn about the country, however less than half of these distribution hubs have been outfitted with any form of substation automation, said John McDonald, former president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES), and current director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Energy's Digital Energy business.

Because of this lack of intelligent substations, most utilities still rely on customer calls to identify where a fault has taken place. Once the disruption has been discovered, the utility must send field workers to assess the problem, and develop a plan to get power back online. This, however, can only be accomplished if residents even have phone service to make these calls. In a storm as crippling as Sandy, utilities can expect that if power is out, phone service will be too.

However, if smart grid technologies - such as substation automation and remote capabilities,  updated geographic-information systems, outage-management systems  and separate distribution-management  - had been installed, utilities would have a better chance to keep the lights on. Instead of taking a reactive approach, power companies could proactively locate and isolate outages automatically, lowering the time it takes to reroute power from hours or even days to minutes.

"If you have the technology, you know where the problem is, what equipment is involved, what crews you need, whether you have the crews you need and when power will be back online," McDonald said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "You have that information, so you can be more proactive with customers."

McDonald conceded that smart grid technologies would not have the power to protect substation equipment from physical damage caused by seawater flooding, however, once the equipment has been properly cleaned and dried, it should quickly return to working order.

Sandy serves as a reminder that much of America's electric infrastructure is decades old. While such a storm may be enough impetus for some companies to invest in smart grid devices, for others, it will likely take government incentives and other rewards, McDonald said.

According to NBC News, Sandy demonstrated that utilities could benefit from turning to increasingly popular intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), sensors and other equipment that give utilities real-time monitoring capabilities. By investing in real-time monitoring equipment, utilities can also better integrate small-scale distributed power stations onto the grid. This could help neighborhoods keep power, even if the region's primary generation facility is offline.

SUBNET has developed an extensive suite of products that help utilities efficiently install substation automation and remote capabilities. By installing IEDs across their entire enterprise, utilities can collect, manage and analyze a huge amount of data that not only will help repair outages faster, but improve overall operating efficiency to keep costs low. 

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