Smart Power Grid May Have Lessened Sandy's Impact

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Old age and a new threat — climate change — are putting a strain on the East Coast's power infrastructure after Sandy.


Sandy dealt a massive blow to the nation's electrical grid. Five million homes and businesses are still without power. As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, big outages have become increasingly common, but there's a lot electric companies could do to limit them.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: University of Minnesota engineering professor Massoud Amin takes it very personally when he watches the TV coverage of super storm Sandy.

MASSOUD AMIN: To watch senior citizens, to watch children evacuated from a hospital or carried on the back of first responders is really painful.

SHOGREN: Amin is a pioneer of something called the Smart Grid, a vision of a more high tech electricity system.

AMIN: It's very shocking knowing that we can do better. We can have a stronger more resilient infrastructure.

SHOGREN: Amin says a smarter grid would be a powerful defense against a storm like Sandy.

AMIN: You know, it would not prevent - bad things will happen. Absolute protection will either be impossible or will be too costly, but what it will do, it will make the size of outages smaller.

SHOGREN: For instance, one way outages get so large is that one transformer blows and knocks out other transformers. A Smart Grid has sensors that can anticipate that a transformer is about to blow and take it offline before it starts a chain reaction. An updated grid also would help utilities fix outages faster. Gregory Reed, a professor of power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh says companies would get detailed real-time information from the scene of outages.

GREGORY REED: That saves us a lot of time in getting restoration crews out to fix the problem. It saves us money by making those crews more efficient when they get there and it can even tell us a little bit about the nature of the damage that's occurred.

SHOGREN: Electric companies are slowly introducing some of these improvements. As part of the 2009 stimulus, the federal government directed $4 billion towards the effort. Reed says another way to reduce the scale of outages would be to put more power lines underground.

REED: It has advantages in terms of everything from reduced maintenance to being able to restore power after you have outages like this in a much quicker way.

SHOGREN: But doing so is very expensive so are those high tech improvements. Clark Gellings is a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute, a think tank funded by power companies.

CLARK GELLINGS: If we were to modernize the power system and install all of the new digital devices, communications, electronic controls and the like that we should potentially install, it will cost us nearly $600 billion over the next 20 years.

SHOGREN: But Professor Amin says a storm like Sandy shows just how much it could cost not to update the grid. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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