13 Nov 2011

One way to prove smart grid benefits: assess power outages and how systems recover more quickly

Written by Jim Pierobon

Consumers, utility executives and regulators can debate the benefits of smart grid applications all they want. But proof is emerging that they can dramatically cut short power outages and even help save lives. It begs the question why these benefits are not more of the smart grid discussion.

The speed and efficiency with which Vermont Electric Cooperative and San Diego Gas and Electric recovered from recent power blackouts provide compelling case studies of what smart grid applications can do. Let’s begin with SDG&E.

One of the thousands of San Diego-area intersections without power September 7-8, 2011. CREDIT: Reuters' Mike Blake

San Diego Gas & Electric, September 7-8, 2011

“Get ready to be in the dark. Get your emergency precautions ready,” Michael Niggli, president and chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric told the media on September 7, 2011 after mishap on a high-voltage power line linking Arizona and San Diego, caused a cascading series of electrical grid failures affecting northern Mexico, Arizona and Southern California. This was on a hot day with some locations recorded above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the system was within 6% of its absolute supply capability. More than 7 million people, businesses, gas stations, hospitals and airports plunged into darkness.

Thanks to SDG&E’s build out of selected smart grid applications and installation of smart meters throughout its service territory, Niggli knew within minutes the extent of the outage along with who and what were most at risk. “At that time we didn’t know exactly what had happened,” Niggle explained in an interview with The Energy Fix during the GridWise Global Forum in Washington, DC Nov. 10.

To make matters worse, a source of generation in northern Mexico broke down further complicating the regional transmission challenges of diagnosing what went wrong. “We were able to dissect the sequence of events in a very quick manner,” Niggli said.

What could have easily lasted 2-3 days, lasted about 12 hours. A lot went into the all-hands-on-deck response. Integral to the quick recovery were smart meters that SDG&E had recently installed throughout its service territory and completion of a a supervisory control and data acquisition (or SCADA) system. The latter allows engineers to monitor and remotely control breakers on the utility’s transmission network.

“The smart grid applications really helped us stitch it (recovery) together faster,” Niggle said. “We knew exactly what was going on. We had all the information at our fingertips.” SDG&E targeted hospitals and sewage treatment plants — some without backup power — and public facilities it otherwise could not have done in real time without its smart grid.

To help keep customers abreast of restoration efforts, SDG&E sent 133 Tweets, deployed aggressive media outreach and sent emails to 600,000 customers. It personally called 20,000 customers in need of power to operate critical medical equipment. Company personnel knocked on the front doors 2,000 customers, some in the middle of the night.

Watch Niggli summarize the smart grid’s role here.

Vermont Electric Cooperative, December 1-6, 2010

Flashback to October 2005. The Vermont Electric Cooperative had been beefing up its transmission and distribution networks but had not begun deploying initial smart grid applications. About 15,000 customers lost power during an early season heavy, wet snow on fully leafed trees. Throughout the service territory, which butts up against the Canadian border, groups of trees actually were uprooted.

“During that time, we couldn’t tell (customers) how bad it was,” said CEO David Hallquist in an interview with The Energy Fix. “We couldn’t tell them when the power would be back on.” The Vermont Public Service Board registered 110 written complaints about the relatively slow response. It was getting ready but stopped short of yanking the Coop’s Certificate of Public Good which it needed to continue operations. “It was a nightmare situation.”

It took the Coop eight days to completely restore service and then only with the help neighboring utilities.

Hallquist, recruited from Honda Motor’s U.S. operations in southern California, to take over the top job, said he got the message to move faster and smarter. The Coop secured money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 to speed up the installation of SCADA systems and smart meters to customers in all but the most rural areas (all totaled, about 80 percent of its customers).

This is typical of the repair work needed in early December 2010 to restore power to 12,500 customers of Vermont Electric Coop. CREDIT: Central Vermont Public Service

Fast forward to December 2010. A freak wind storm caused power outages to 12,500 customers and ended up costing TWICE as much to repair hundreds of downed power lines. But by then, several smart grid applications were operating smoothly including a robust outage management system. The Coop was able to restore service in five days. The number of complaints? None, according to Hallquist.

To the contrary, Hallquist said the Coop received 150 cards and letters commending its repair work. “This is one of those ‘a-ha’ moments,” he said. “For someone to take the the time to write . . . that’s a big deal.” Compliments also flowed to the Coop’s Facebook page.

“You have to have to provide a pleasurable experience during an outage,” Hallquist asserted during remarks to the GridWise Global Forum, drawing spontaneous laughter from throughout the audience. But he saw — and continues to see — outages as the ultimate test and opportunity. “That’s when you’re being judged.”

Through its WattWatchers program enabled by the newly installed smart meters, the Coop essentially has pre-empted complaints about high bills. One customer who did complain did not realize someone was using the hot tub in his home during weekday lunch hours resulting in corresponding spikes in usage. Hallquist said the customer discovered his wife was “cheating on him . . . they’re divorced now.” Since then, the Coop has rolled out enhanced privacy protections.

Watch Hallquist here recap how smart grid investments have paid off for the Coop.

1 Comment to One way to prove smart grid benefits: assess power outages and how systems recover more quickly

  1. November 14, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Jim, very nice article. I cannot say enough how important the use of smart grid technology is as a foundation to building customer reelationships during outages.

    One minor correction, I was a freelance consultant that specialized in Business Process Redesign and Honda was one of my accounts. Vermont Electric Cooperative was also one of those accounts. I had a long list of clients at the point that VEC made the offer to come to work for them.

    The anecdotal stories we have heard from our customers regarding what they have discovered using hourly data to determine energy usage problems is also impressive. It shows just how important it is to keep that data confidential.

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