On October 29, a significant portion of the population of the Northeast USA was inconvenienced by a loss of power caused by an unusually early winter storm.  As the worst case scenario played out, overburdened trees created multiple breaks in the transmission and distribution networks, toppling poles and lines.  The state of Connecticut was particularly hard hit.  Just look at this annotated string of press releases from the major utility, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) in the state:

10/30:  Clean-up Begins After Historic nor’easter Leaves Nearly 770,000 CL&P Customers Without Power

11/4:  CL&P Approaching 300,000 Without Power

11/6:  CL&P Pushing to Restore 99 Percent of Customers Statewide by Midnight Tonight

11/9:  CL&P Completing Restoration Efforts

It took 10 days to fully restore power to Connecticut residents and businesses.   The fallout is still ongoing, with the latest casualty being the CL&P president, who resigned on November 17.  The governor of the state and six members of the Congressional delegation have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to investigate this outage recovery effort.   But that’s the wrong question to ask.  The right question is – how do we make the grid more reliable and resilient?

To be clear, this was a catastrophic event that left almost 65% of CL&P’s customers shivering in the dark.  The financial damages are still being tallied.   And regional outages can occur within any utility’s footprint, because our current electrical grid has serious vulnerabilities caused by a reliance on centralized generation and an absence of energy storage.  This combination leaves customers at the mercy of every breaking tree limb, every car skidding into a utility pole, and every cyber attack targeted at generation and transmission assets. 

The Smart Grid offers a different and better scenario for recovery from grid failures.  No, the Smart Grid won’t prevent catastrophic events, but it can minimize the number of impacted customers through distributed generation using domestic renewables; distributed energy storage; and microgrids.  If CL&P had energy stored at key substations, they could have rationed electricity to select hours to give connected downstream customers at least a “lifeline” of power to run essential appliances and build a little heat in homes. 

Beyond redefining the electricity supply chain to incorporate generation and storage at the distribution level, the Smart Grid vision offers more possibilities for utilities and their regulatory agencies that are willing to apply innovative technologies and services to redefine their missions of offering safe, reliable, and affordable electricity.  Options include:

  • Remote sensing and shut off of downed power lines – a certain improvement to public safety.  
  • Portable renewable generation to provide lifeline electricity services to customers during outages – a concept being developed to eliminate energy poverty in developing nations.
  • Smart meters – automatically alert utilities about power outages at the moment of failure, not at the moment of customer discovery. 
  • Smart Grid-related technologies and programs that reduce electricity consumption on a permanent basis – also known as energy efficiency.
  • Smart Grid-related technologies and programs that reduce electricity use for time-specific periods – otherwise identified as Demand Response programs.  

If I lived in Connecticut, I’d be asking CP&L and its regulators about their plans to improve grid reliability and resiliency using Smart Grid technologies.  But no matter where you live, these are good questions to ask your electric utility, and good expectations to place on your regulatory agencies.