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Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, and utilities have been working tirelessly to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers. As the labor continues, questions among the industry begin to arise: How could utilities better prepare for - and react to - such destructive storms in the future? Could there be fewer outages? Could restoration efforts go even faster?

John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Digital Energy, believes it is essential for utilities to invest in the smart grid. If the industry arms itself with automated technologies, fewer customers would lose power during storms, and those who did would be left in the dark for a much shorter time frame.

“Utilities are supposed to do the best job they can for their customers in respect to reliability, safety and economics, and the smart grid provides the technologies that give utilities all those capabilities in a big way,” he says.

Fighting the storm
Prior to any storm, utilities are in what McDonald refers to as “preventative mode.” This includes looking at the configuration of the distribution system and determining which equipment has the highest risk of damage, especially from flooding. If necessary, utilities can strategically turn off the at-risk equipment, reroute power and keep as much of the system on and operating as possible. Doing so in an effective manner, however, requires smart grid technology.

For example, advanced load-flow programs give a utility the ability to simulate how the distribution system would operate if the utility made preventive changes. The utility can then determine if its actions would have negative results, including voltage violations or an unstable system.

During and after a storm, smart meters - with the associated two-way communications - are perhaps the most important smart grid technology utilities can have, according to McDonald. When an outage occurs, many utilities still need to rely on phone calls from customers. A smart meter, on the other hand, has just enough energy to make one “last gasp” communication that indicates it is without power, he explains. Smart meters allow utilities to know exactly which homes are without power and when the loss occurred.

In addition, McDonald suggests there are three systems all utilities should invest in: a geographic information system (GIS), an outage management system (OMS) and a distribution management system (DMS). If utilities fully integrate these systems with smart meters, he says restoration efforts are vastly quicker and easier.

A GIS comprises digitized maps of a utility’s service territory. Meanwhile, the OMS keeps track of any change of state in the field and determines what the problems are and where the problems are.

The OMS typically receives its information from customer calls and status changes sent from the DMS. However, social networks are emerging as a third source. McDonald notes that GE offers Grid IQ Insight, an automated solution that allows utilities to identify the location of outages by monitoring posts on social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook.

According to McDonald, the OMS and GIS play supportive roles to the DMS, which is the key solution for monitoring and managing a utility’s distribution system. Also, the DMS has applications that are “self-healing.” For example, the fault detection, isolation and restoration (FDIR) application - as its name suggests - automatically detects a disturbance on the distribution system, identifies the problem and isolates it. This allows utilities to go out and manually restore service to the faulted segment.

Regardless of which smart grid technologies utilities use, though, McDonald stresses that the industry must change its philosophy and allow software to make the decisions. At many utilities, no action can take place on the system without the approval of the control center supervisor. He says utilities need to place trust in a software application that analyzes the situation, decides what to do, doesn’t wait for a human to review and approve the action, goes out and does it, then reports what it did after the fact.

“Utilities can detect a disturbance, isolate it and restore service to the healthy sections of the feeder within a minute or so, assuming utilities can close the loop on the software application and have no human in the loop - that’s important,” he explains. “Otherwise, it’s going to take a lot more time to get things done.”

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