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Smart grid's ability to ease the impact of blackouts

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Compared to other countries with less-developed electric infrastructure, such as India, U.S. power outages are relatively rare. However, when they do occur, they have proven to catch many utilities unprepared and lead to serious outages that last for weeks.

However, with the improvements that have been made in smart grid technology and introduced throughout the electric grid across the country, these blackouts may soon be less devastating. This could allow both companies and utilities to save millions of dollars in losses that would have been incurred due to lost productivity or added maintenance operations.

Take the recent Superstorm Sandy, for example, which knocked out power along the east coast and left millions of families from New Jersey to New York in the dark. In total, utilities worked to restore power to 8.5 million people, and even two weeks after landfall, several homes were still without power.

The effects of the storm are still being felt one month later, and many industry professionals say that if smart grid technologies were even more widespread, the blow to the bulk electric system would have been much less. These preventative technologies include digital intelligence that can be instrumental in helping utilities prepare for such events.

John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy, said that at the heart of these developments is the growing use of automation through intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), which are the smallest components of what could soon become a self-healing grid.

McDonald stated that these IEDs have two parts - the internal processing units and the self-healing capabilities, which allow for two way communication between utilities and assets. By creating an extensive network of IEDs, grid operators will see more control than ever, and will ensure a more reliable grid.

"[They let you] know that you have a disturbance or a problem, figure out where it is, isolate it, restore service around and all that prevents cascading something more serious like a blackout," he said.

McDonald added that if the national electric infrastructure had been fully outfitted with IEDs, the effects of Hurricane Sandy would have been seriously mitigated. Utilities would have even more power over grid functions, he said, because they would have the capability to disconnect distribution systems that have potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by any number of physical attacks. This results in a proactive - rather than reactive - approach to creating a stable grid.

However, for the grid to truly flourish, more companies will have to get behind the smart grid, and press for more funding to help grid investment grow. According to the media outlet, since 2009, $3.4 billion has been allocated from the national budget toward electric infrastructure modernization projects, which were given through the stimulus package. Private sector players matched these funds, bringing the total to $7.8 billion, which further helped smart grid development through the Smart Grid Investment Program.

SGIP funds have been used for a number of different smart grid projects, ranging from upgrades to electric transmission systems and distribution systems, to spreading the use of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

The smart grid is evolving all the time, and views of what will be crucial change regularly, however, utilities will likely continue to look for the best strategy to use for the future.

"I think that utilities are looking at many other possibilities, as well as how to improve their infrastructure and how to make it more robust," said Datta Godbole, director of technology at Honeywell.

SUBNET's ability to help utilities manage all of their IEDs through one server has led to faster, more affordable installations and grid management that results in much higher operational efficiency. 

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