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Hurricane Irene, Nikola Tesla, and Improving Outage Management

On Sunday August 28, the center of the hurricane/tropic storm named Irene went about 30 miles west of Shoreham, NY, located on the Long Island Sound. Being on the east side of the storm, Shoreham and the rest of Long Island were exposed to its greatest fury. At its peak, 523,000 Long Island Power Authority customers were without power.

Irene had already plowed up the East Coast, wreaking havoc and creating power outages in every state it passed over. According to the Department of Energy, 6.7 million customers had no power on that Sunday. On the following Thursday, nearly 1 million customers still had no lights. The primary reason that so many were without power were the overhead transmission lines and distribution lines that were taken down by the high winds and trees.

So what's the significance of the storm blowing through Shoreham, NY? In the early 1900s in Shoreham, Nikola Tesla performed electric power engineering research. Tesla had already developed polyphase alternating current (ac) system of generators, motors and transformers and held 40 basic U.S. patents on the system. George Westinghouse recognized the potential of Tesla's inventions and bought his patents and commercialized the technology. Tesla's ac technology proved to superior to the direct current (dc) system that Thomas Edison argued for and eventually won the battle, just as VHS defeated Beta in the VCR wars of the 1980s. 1893 marked a milestone for the industrial world, with the huge demonstration of the Westinghouse/Tesla polyphase ac system at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Tesla was the mastermind behind the ac power system that has transformed the world from the 1880s until today. His impact was so great that, in 1997, Tesla was named one of the 100 most important people in the last 1,000 years. So Irene essentially knocked out large parts of the ac power system that Tesla, who spent much of life in the New York City, had done so much to develop and invent. For more than a week, many customers would not be able to turn on their lights, refrigerators, air conditioners, and even the induction motors that Tesla had invented.

But the irony doesn't stop there. From 1901 to 1905, Tesla built the Tesla Laboratory and the Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, using funds from the financial titan J.P Morgan. Besides serving as a communications broadcast center, the tower was also designed to deliver electric power without wires. The energy would be transmitted through the ionosphere and the ground to the whole planet. It would behave much like radio transmission. Essentially, Tesla wanted to saturate the surface of the globe with electricity for global use, without the use of wires.

But it never worked out, and the tower was torn down in 1917. But think how much the electric power world would have been different if the concept had proved successful. No electric lines costing billions of dollars to construct. No periodic costly tree trimming to undertake. The huge electric power disruptions, like those caused by Irene, might be greatly minimized. But, without that successful technology development in Shoreham, Irene charged through Long Island almost 100 years later, turning off the lights for days for so many people.

After such storms, there are always those who ask, "Why don't we just make all the electric power facilities underground?" Study after study has shown that economically, it just isn't feasible. While the expense is justified in certain cases -- for example, where it is decided that aesthetics are of driving importance -- the cost of burying existing electric facilities on a large scale is an amount that society is not willing to bear.

So then people ask, "Why can't the power be fixed any faster?" They look out the windows and see the storm is long gone. "It's been sunny now for three days, four days, a week, and the power still isn't on. Why? The power companies aren't prepared to deal with this! They're not doing their jobs! Certainly we should be able to restore power quicker with all the technology available to us!"

The answer is that utilities and distribution organizations have long focused on storm response and getting the lights back on quicker. There are already many things being done, and more that technology providers and utilities are working on.

  • Modern geographic information system (GIS)-based outage management systems have been around since the early 1990s and are in common use throughout the power industry. They assist electric distribution organizations with predicting where outages have occurred, based on the location of customer phone calls and indications from their automated monitoring systems (commonly called SCADA - supervisory control and data acquisition). The outage management systems assist the power providers by providing them a visualization of where the outages have occurred, and with managing the crews and resources to get power restored. Utilities are able to manage their own crews, as well as crews that come into the storm area from other areas and states. The outage management systems also assist with prioritizing the outages, which is typically based on restoring service to critical customers like hospitals and emergency response providers first and giving higher priority to outages affecting larger numbers of customers.
  • Over the years, outage management systems have changed their computing architectures as information technologies have evolved. They have evolved from mainframe systems to distributed client-server systems that are capable of handing millions of customer outages during a storm.
  • Improved interoperability between the outage management system and other utility systems has also evolved. This includes automated interfaces between the outage management system and the mobile workforce management system, which is how many electric power providers communicate with the field crews during storms. Just as mobile computing technologies have changed the world in just the last five years, the mobile systems that utilities use are constantly improving so that crews can work more efficiently and get the lights back on quicker.
  • The interoperability between systems also includes interfaces between the smart meters that are being installed for many electric customers. Many of the smart meters have the capability to communicate their status to the electric provider, indicating if power has been lost or if it has been restored. This can improve the efficiency of the provider, and lead to less outage times for customers.
  • Advances in information technologies now provide utilities with improved situational awareness during storms. The use of business intelligence tools permits utilities to extract information from all their available IT systems, including outage management, mobile workforce management, smart metering systems, geographic mapping systems, etc. All of this information is used to provide dashboards, trends, and geographical depictions of what is happening to utility management and personnel on a near real-time basis. The result is that the utility has a much better understanding of the problems on the systems and the resources at their disposal to fix the problems. They able to respond much quicker to large-scale events like Irene.
So even though it may have seemed to some of us that Irene mockingly drove through the site of Tesla's laboratory on wireless power transmission on Long Island last month, we continue to use technology to get the upper hand on storms and get power restored quicker. There is always room for improvement in getting the lights back on, and even though we don't have wireless power transmission available to us, we will continue to use the technologies available to us in battling the forces of nature.

Content Discussion

Len Gould's picture
Len Gould
I've never sat in on a utility technology options discussion yet where the focus was on "getting the lights back on faster". It's always "making more profit", which, in a monopoly situation rarely corresponds. My bet is that the high-tech GIS and smart metering etc. is used to reduce worker counts while maintaining the same bare minimum service level mandated by the regulator.

My recomendation to customers in storm-prone areas is to implement gas-fired (with propane backup) distributed generation integrated with the grid. (Honda etc's engine units, SOFC's asap). Only problem in getting them commercial is they require a significant re-structuring of the electricity "market" systems now in place.

Harry Valentine's picture
Harry Valentine
Good points in the article. Some of Tesla's theories re transmitting electric power without wires is beginning to happen, courtesy of magnetically coupled resonance technology. However, power transmission levels are low and effective distances relatively short.
Dean Craig's picture
Dean Craig
Good article, enjoyed the historical context. One technology I was surprised the author didn't mention was automatic fault location, isolation and service restoration, or FLISR for short. In the early nineties Long Island Lighting Co (LILCO) pioneered a semi-automatic system, deploying over 1400 automated switching points on their distribution circuits throughout Long Island in an effort to improve reliability. Millions of customer outage minutes had already been saved by the system when I worked on it in the late nineties. I suspect it is still in service in this very challenging service territory and probably significantly reduced the impact of Irene.
Jeff Williams's picture
Jeff Williams
Thank you or the historical background. I always find that very interesting. The extent of Irene and the duration of outages shiould be an interesting study topic to determine the differences in restoration times of utiltiies utilizing SmartGrid and other new technologies vs those who don't yet. It may be useful for the numerous public service commission investigations on the topic.
Jim Beyer's picture
Jim Beyer
Along with what Harry said, I don't mean to be a sour puss, but it's unclear what Tesla was able to actually accomplish with wireless power transmission, especially at a distance.

Most of us know the trick about waving a fluorescent tube underneath a high power line. But that is maybe 50 watts transmitted 100 feet or so? Also, the energy decline from a line source is 1/R. A point source, like a transmission tower, would be 1/(R*R).

Robert Poor's picture
Robert Poor
I'm curious about the claim that "Study after study has shown that economically, [running transmission lines underground] just isn't feasible." Can you cite any studies?

I understand that inductive losses make it impractical to run high-voltage AC lines underground. But wouldn't DC distribution change all that?

Len Gould's picture
Len Gould
Robert. DC distribution simply makes very little sense because of the cost of the equipment to down-convert DC the endpoints. Perhaps if low-cost superconducting distribution ever happens, then the substations might feed entire districts directly at 240V, but that looks like being a long way off, if ever.
Jim Beyer's picture
Jim Beyer
Robert and Len,

I didn't know that. Do you mean for regular feed lines to homes (those are the ugliest) or the huge transmission grid lines (huge towers, etc.)?

P.S. Superconducting lines sound neat, but I always wondered what would happen if the cooling failed, and the lines started heating up just a little.... Seems like a catastrophic edge is always around the corner w.r.t. superconducting distribution.