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Eastern utilities and another hard lesson

The wildfires that raged across Colorado's Front Range in past weeks and the storms that rocked the Eastern states late last week present challenges to both utilities and end-use customers alike.

To my knowledge, affected utilities in Colorado incurred no outages as a result of the fires that threatened their communities. In the East, no such luck, as massive thunderstorms swept the region, unleashing wind and rain and leaving dangerously high temperatures in their wake.

Widespread and lingering outages were the norm in many Eastern states. The impacts were heightened by a number of heat-related deaths. 

To my mind, the situations in both West and East call for examining a few issues.

As with other high-impact natural disasters, these events remind us that the fury of Mother Nature can overcome the best laid plans and systems devised by humankind.

Utilities have no choice but to be honest about the fallibility of their systems simply because it's true. Customers and their elected representatives probably need to be more honest with themselves about this element of the bigger picture.

Careful analysis must identify the many factors at play in the Eastern scenario in order to extract meaningful lessons. And both utilities and customers must honestly discern the facts and their implications.

Yesterday I did hear from a source, anecdotally, that back-of-envelope math pegged last fall's storm-related outages in the East as affecting perhaps three million people and that this time around that number swelled to perhaps four million. That raises the uncomfortable question of whether utilities and customers learned anything from that historic debacle and whether lessons have been learned and acted upon or ignored.  

It strikes me that Exhibit A (last fall's storms) and Exhibit B (last weekend's storms) don't bode well for utilities and their sales pitch around smart grid, despite the fact that grid modernization doesn't get done in 9 months.

But it does offer the opportunity for stakeholders to honestly hone more realistic arguments for the investments needed in grid modernization, while eschewing the hype that would equate the installation of smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure with, for instance, more rapid restoration of service.  

Perhaps, as critics charge, the solution is nothing more sophisticated than devoting greater resources to vegetation management and better management and coordination of restoration efforts. Were these steps, in fact, mandated after last fall's outages? If so, were they carried out? Others will argue for undergrounding power lines, which aids reliability at higher cost. These actions fall under standard cost-benefit models for risk management. You can spend out the wazoo and never achieve full reliability or you can scrimp and accept the consequences. Naturally, an affordable middle ground beckons, but it comes with responsibilities for all.  

Perhaps, as utilities might argue, these events merely underscore the power of Mother Nature and the urgent need for grid modernization. An honest tagline would be: With results yet to come.  

We've written about this in at least two previous columns: "Managing Expectations for Outages" and "Managing Outages: Scale and Granularity Matter."

The fact is, improved outage management does not simply flow from the installation of smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure or from the integration of new outage management systems or other technologies. But end-use customers deserve to hear from utilities how their investments in these and other technologies can and will cut natural disaster-related outages and speed restoration. 

I suspect the linear sprawl of the grid itself—that is, the miles of wires that transmit and distribute electrical power—poses a significant maintenance challenge and a hurdle to certain restoration challenges. That's the argument for de-centralized power systems such as microgrids, solar gardens and community energy storage. But with billions of taxpayer dollars invested nationally and hundreds of millions requested and often approved locally, end users not only deserve an explanation, the credibility of the utilities involved depends on it.

Braying columnists aside, political leaders with egg on their face will demand these explanations and utilities will be bound to deliver them. If the explanations include better vegetation management and improved coordination of restoration efforts, the upshot may be painful: so what's changed since last October, when these same factors were cited? 

I remain open-minded as to the answers. After all, these areas indeed are getting walloped by Mother Nature. But we're bound to learn and improve both our understanding of the possible as well as actionable steps to mitigate Mother Nature's power. If we're developing lessons learned, I'd like to know what they are.

As for customers, these lessons learned are important, too. The grid is not infallible, nor are the utilities that build and operate it. Flicking a switch is not an automatic guarantee of electricity. In some cases, unilateral action may be required to buffer these truths. Honest fact-finding in such circumstances may be an oxymoron, given the human propensity to point fingers. In the end, however, we'll have to adjust our expectations, while taking concrete steps to improve grid reliability. 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily




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