TPDC at Jupiter West, Fla. on Jan. 13, 2012. Tom Winter

June 1 marked the start of hurricane season, meaning that utilities and customers in vulnerable areas should be gearing up to manage power outages. Ways of improving the reliability of power generation include providing the utility with more information in less time, and creating generation systems that can operate totally independently of the grid.

Updating the Grid

Making the grid smarter cannot physically protect the grid from high winds or trees falling on power lines. But installation and integration of a five-component system can help utilities to bring power back on faster, and in some cases minimize the number of electricity customers affected by an outage, according to John McDonald, Director of Technical Strategy and Policy Development for GE Digital Energy.

“There are five fundamental technologies that utilities should have invested in, or should invest in,” McDonald told Breaking Energy. The technologies – Smart Meter, two-way communications system, Outage Management System, Geographical Information System and Distribution Management System – work in concert to minimize customer outages and speed resumption of service in the event of an outage, he said.

  • Smart Meter: While people familiar with Smart Meters know that it provides detailed usage information, it also features last-gasp communications in case of a power outage. “Smart Meter will talk to the utility and say it’s without power,” McDonald said. “The utility knows exactly which customers are out.”
  • Two-Way Communications: Enables the Smart Meter to talk to the utility.
  • Outage Management System: The OMS keeps track of which customers are without power, and has a network model showing a layout of the grid and how each customer is connected. Information on outages can be relayed to the OMS via Smart Meter, customer calls, or even social media, such as tweets or e-mailed photos.
  • Geographical Information System: The GIS entails digitized maps of an entire utility service area, complete with longitudinal and latitudinal locations, all of the utility’s assets – such as power poles – and connectivity, or the nodes of the network. The GIS is the source of the network model that serves the OMS and the distribution management system.
  • Distribution Management System: When a disturbance occurs on the grid, the DMS can detect it, isolate the problem area, and then quickly restore power to customers on the healthy parts of the line. While some customers may have to endure an outage, this can reduce the number of customers experiencing sustained outages on the overall system.

Disconnecting from the Grid

Another option for protection against hurricane-related outages is establishment of a microgrid – a system that can generate  power independently of a utility in event of a power loss.

There are four components of a microgrid, Tom Glennon, Director of Engineering for Honeywell Building Solutions, told Breaking Media.

  • Local power generation: The microgrid must have the capacity to produce its own electricity within the defined area. “That generation can come from a lot of different sources – wind, solar, diesel, natural gas,” said Glennon.
  • Load management system: Within a microgrid, operators must be able to manage and control power loads, ensuring that flipping one switch does not result in an overload that shuts down the entire system.
  • Co-existence with the utility: A campus or other defined microgrid area may get all its power from a utility, may need to supply all its own generation needs, and at times, could even put available power back into the grid.
  • Island capability: A microgrid must have the ability to supply its own power needs totally independent of the utility.

What are the Costs?

Updating the grid with all five of the essential Smart Grid and information and management systems can entail substantial costs, but can also yield substantial benefits. “Those five components are the fundamental building blocks, and each of those has a cost associated with it, but the potential benefits are large, resulting in a strong business case, particularly when the five components are integrated properly” said McDonald.

Some utilities have managed to tap into government funding to upgrade their systems. The Department of Energy awarded $3.4 billion in grid modernization funding as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. Florida Power and Light managed to secure $200 million of the total, and embarked on a massive upgrade to its grid, which included installation of millions of Smart Meters and a distribution dispatch center that uses Google maps to show a layout of the grid’s integrated smart technologies.

Designing and building a microgrid, in contrast, is a customer-specific project, sometimes driven by a need for reliable electricity that goes beyond the demands of the average household. Honeywell undertook a microgrid project at the US Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak Research Center in Maryland that managed to keep the lights on through both an earthquake and a hurricane in 2012.

“It’s about a 4.5 million square foot campus, and our central plant provides the electricity, all of the heating and all of the cooling for the campus needs,” said Glennon.

What are the Benefits?

In the case of grid modernization, the primary benefit is the ability to reduce both the time and the volume of customer outages. “The more information you can get and the faster you can get it, the better the utility can respond and get things fixed. That’s what it boils down to,” McDonald said.

McDonald added that better service can help to avoid bad press. “One of the big drivers for investment in technology is unfavorable publicity,” he said. “A lot of the media is very good at comparing groups of customers that are fed from different utilities and how quickly their lights came on.”

In the case of microgrids, the ability to weather storms with no power interruption can prove critical for institutions such as hospitals, laboratories, and increasingly, college campuses.

“The safety and security of their students is extremely important, and they’re starting to value that and publicize it in advertising and promotion for their campuses so parents can be assured that their children are in a safe environment,” Glennon said.