First Read Viewpoint: This summer, millions went without power in India’s largest outage in history, and currently, hurricane season still threatens the Gulf coast. Now more than ever, concerns about power delivery in extreme weather are real and increasing.

We’ve all heard the cliché “time is money,” but it is especially true for providers of electricity. Every minute that power is out equals lost revenue. For large investor owned utilities (IOUs), the potential impact of storms can reach tens of millions of dollars annually. Quite often, smaller utilities do not have funds to set aside for these types of extreme events so they can take a hit on city and utility operations.

The potential effect on the bottom line is a highly motivating factor, so today’s utilities, especially those in North America, have emergency operations processes well established. While IOU’s have the most resources, systems, and material stock to respond with the biggest bang, most municipal and cooperative utilities struggle more with timely responsiveness and the overall cost impact.

A catastrophic event such as a Category 5 hurricane or tornado will immediately limit technology functionality, but some degree of power, water, gas, and communications systems should be available. These systems will improve as the utilities’ processes and restoration efforts progress.

But with the aging grid, are these well-tuned processes enough in the face of a true disaster? Would a smarter grid be able to help?
To answer those critical questions, a handful of factors should be considered: safety, coordination, availability, affordability, and security.

Safety: Does the technology help improve safety? Knowing in real time if any given customer is without power can save response time and help identify the areas with a critical need. Or identifying if a particular customer was back feeding power on the system with their portable generator unit could also help restore emergency services faster.

Coordination: Does the technology provide improved responsiveness? The data from smart grid technology can provide awareness of where to send first responders. Is the technology easy to use and understand? It is important to be able to translate data into the format primarily used by the disaster response team including federal, state, and local organizations and that everyone can easily understand it to increase critical decision-making time.   Coordination, or lack thereof, may be the biggest money waster of all.

Availability: Is the infrastructure partially available after a storm event? What about cell coverage, network, or emergency power for operations centers? It isn’t enough to own good technology. In order to be properly prepared for storm or emergency events, cellular, satellite, and emergency power availability should be considered. Many meters in the smart grid world offer “last gasp” capabilities. If the grid is partially up and the utility operations center has power, disaster response teams should be able to get a clear picture, in many cases immediately, of how severe the outages are. Geospatial applications, integrated with smart grid technology, can also provide an operations dashboard that is imperative during the most critical hours of an emergency.

Affordability: Realistically, resources always come down to “what can we afford?” Technology to protect against every scenario is out of the question, so instead utilities prepare for most cases, but restoration results will be comparable to investments. Is there a way to afford state-of-the-art technology without increasing customer rates? It’s possible, and there are solutions out there, but not many utilities have taken this path.

Security: Extreme weather provides more opportunities for security gaps. New technology provides new ways to control and manage system operations. However, this technology needs to incorporate both physical and cyber security methods in order to be beneficial. Planning to address cyber security in the future won’t work. Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) is important, but there is a hole in the logic. Utilities can identify what is or isn’t “critical” to assure NERC compliance.  Yet, every asset that can be controlled or managed should be included in the CIP plan. Quite often this is an overwhelming task that can become worse during a natural disaster.

So would a smarter grid really be able to help? Absolutely. However, the vast majority of utilities in North America have less than 150,000 meters. Most of these utilities can’t afford the technology, geospatial applications, software, hardware, disaster recovery, and other capabilities. But these capabilities are what’s needed most for more reliable operations and responsiveness, especially during extreme weather. Utilities can take advantage of these technologies by learning from some of the similar sized utilities that did not get ARRA funding, or by investigating other utility programs implemented without raising rates. These programs are available; they are affordable; and they can potentially alleviate some of the stress in an extreme weather event.    

Steven M. Root is assistant vice president of smart grid at SAIC and currently leads a team of experts in SAIC’s Smart Grid Division. As a former Carolina Power & Light / Progress Energy employee, he worked in customer services and IT operations and was part of the initial spin-off of the energy performance company for CP&L – Strategic Resource Solutions. He has worked with electric, gas, water or communications throughout his entire career. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a Gulf War veteran.  He resides in Austin, Texas with his family, when he is not out with utilities.