When the power goes out, electric utility customers want it back, and fast. Now it’s possible for a “smart” or “self-healing” electronic grid to reduce customers’ hours without power to just a few minutes. But adopting this technology is more complicated than flipping a switch.

A self-healing grid works by isolating the area where the impact of a power outage is the smallest and, ideally, restoring power to those customers almost immediately. Then, smart meters pinpoint those customers who remain without power so that the utility’s control center can send a crew out to fix the cause.

“Intelligent power delivery systems represent a design-paradigm shift in grid management,” Ken Geisler, VP of strategy for Siemens Smart Grid division recently told Breaking Energy. Improved efficiency is one of the key benefits. The old way was to design a power delivery grid that would meet anticipated consumption and then overbuild to account for demand peaks and emergencies, like extreme weather.

“But now automation allows you to build it more reliably,” said Geisler. Meters placed throughout the self-healing system monitor electricity flow and send data back to the control room in seconds.

Although right now very few utilities have such intelligent, self-healing grids, that’s something Siemens is looking to change. The company currently has an intelligent power delivery system on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where “smart” substations can activate switching plans to divert power away from and around an outage area. The self-healing system manages switching across eight substations that service the east end of Oahu. “If you lose a portion [of the grid] it could take four to six hours to find and fix the problem,” Geisler said. “Now intelligent substations can restore power to customers in two to four minutes.”

Siemens is also working with the utility, Oncor, in Dallas, and its technology designed to deal with extreme weather is now in place throughout Texas.

Widespread vs. Local Outages

For utilities, there are only two kinds of storms: Those that impact the high-voltage grid, and those that don’t. And the responses to each vary.

When utilities plan for dealing with major storms that knock out large sections of the grid, the goal is to predict, prepare for and safely restore power. A “black start” is industry speak for re-energizing the grid after a major outage. An improperly orchestrated black start can cause additional damage to the system, compounding the original problem and leaving customers without power for longer than necessary. Smart grid technology helps utilities manage these situations safely and efficiently.

Local power outages, on the other hand, are all about the fast restoration of power. “People expect power to go down when a big storm hits, but localized outages can be worse from a customer point of view, because your neighbor might have power while you don’t,” said Geisler. “It’s hard for customers to understand this.”

But smart grid technology can rapidly increase response and restoration times for localized power outages. A smart meter immediately “calls” a utility when a problem occurs and instantaneously relays information about what has happened. The utility can then dispatch a crew and tell customers how long it will take to restore power.

Simply stated, some of the top-line smart-grid goals are to maintain a “comfort level by reducing the amount of power produced, while increasing reliability,” said Thierry Godart, president of Siemens Smart Grid Division.

The Benefits Are Clear, But What about the Cost?

While smart grid technology’s numerous benefits can include increased energy efficiency, greater reliability, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and, eventually, lower cost electricity for consumers, it usually requires significant up-front investment. Determining how to fund these highly capital-intensive projects can be a challenge, and so can be figuring the actual cost.

Siemens representatives told Breaking Energy that it is “too complicated” to put a dollar amount on a typical smart-grid investment project, but the technology involved is not the biggest cost. Rather, they say, training people on how to use the systems and to analyze the massive quantities of data associated with intelligent technologies accounts for a large part of its price.

Read additional Breaking Energy smart grid coverage here.

And before considering an upgrade to a smart grid, utilities might want to take a holistic view. For instance, do they need to overhaul their entire systems or just replace some infrastructure?

Another challenge to switching over to a new system is that utilities also often need to balance the needs of shareholders with those of various consumers – industrial, commercial, residential – while considering regulatory requirements and the needs of society. Of course, striking a balance among so many stakeholders is no easy task, but as Geisler points out in considering the potential of the smart grid: As consumers of electricity, “we are all in it together.”