Sandy and the smart grid: who won?

Post-mortem premature, as recovery continues

Phil Carson | Nov 18, 2012


If you're thinking I'm writing too much on Hurricane Sandy and the grid, you've got it backwards: the conversation is just beginning. Though a post-mortem on utility performance and the smart grid's role, if any, is premature, we can outline a few issues.

(You may be informed and/or amused by my posts last week, which included: "Hurricane Sandy: Testing Grid Assumptions," "After Storm, Power Sector at Crossroads," "Sandy: The Power Sector's 9/11," "Grid Design, Resiliency and Power at the Edge" and "Utilities and Us: Toward an Energy `Ecosystem.'")

Hurricane Sandy delivered an unprecedented physical assault on Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern utilities and not just the power sector. The conversation now developing, as utilities report to regulators and stakeholders assess the event and utilities' performances, will encompass energy fuels from natural gas to nuclear, and it will include telecom and water. Power is a big part of the picture and an enabler for other services such as drinking water, heating/cooling and communications, but let's keep in context. 

Those assessments will weigh preparation and planning, infrastructure health, the role of technology, people and processes. Do business continuity plans need a reset in the face of extreme weather? Should additional funds and efforts be expended to harden infrastructure and improve resiliency? Do end-use customers bear some responsibility for preparations and resilience in anticipation of extended outages after a massive storm?  

In the power sector, one question is: did smart grid technology aid in preparation, response and recovery from the hurricane? Another question: is the first question a fair one?

The short answer, taking the second first, is: of course! Stakeholders want to know whether their investments have been productive. We're all shelling out big time to modernize the grid. Didn't many utilities sell advanced metering infrastructure on the promise of customers "saving money" and increased reliability for the system? The first claim, based more on active energy management in the face of dynamic prices than the result of mere awareness of energy use data, remains somewhat theoretical as dynamic pricing remains scarce.  

The answer to the first question is that it's premature to say, but fair to conclude that generalizations are difficult. Where sea water flooded a substation vault, smart grid technology as we know it is of little use. Where tree damage in, say, leafy New Jersey—the suburbs raison d'etre—affected as much as one-third the shady canopy, the damage was so extensive that we'll all be fascinated whether millions of last gasps from smart meters really mattered. Did data from smart grid systems really enable utilities to better deploy field crews? 

The claim that smart grid technologies will increase reliability, in the face of massive physical destruction, was capped, and potentially knee-capped, by Sandy. Sure, under normal conditions—a line damaged by a single falling tree or a maintenance action with unintended consequences—smart grid technology should help pinpoint, isolate and address an outage, even a cause, and lead to more targeted and thus swifter restoration action. But a hurricane with the size and force of Sandy led to so many toppled trees, so much flooding and so much chaos, that recovery composed a cat's cradle of challenges that took time to untangle. Are automated switches and reclosers much help when large sections of the grid are purposefully taken down prior to the storm's impact to lessen damage?  

Utility leaders understandably have been busy overseeing the recovery and reporting in the aftermath of one of the worst storms to affect that large a population. Like a year ago, resignations are taking place. But I don't see any major utility figure taking to the airwaves and op-ed pages to address the lessons of the storm. 

Those lessons, off the top of my head, would include: 

  • An unprecedented physical assault on perhaps 10 states will have huge repercussions, including damage that must be addressed first, simply to enable the restoration of power. 
  • Grid modernization, a task measured by generations, is underway, but the process will continue for years and will require large, continuing investments. 
  • The process of building a "smart grid" has just begun, with the deployment of sensors and controls, but the integration of systems and the application of data analytics that will produce real advantages is still years and many dollars away. 
  • While the first century of the electric grid was characterized by spreading service to the most people at the lowest cost, the second century, beginning now, will be characterized by the digitization and increased hardening and resiliency of the grid.
  • Finally, (not sure a utility leader will say this) is that the grid, by nature, is vulnerable and the reliability and resiliency of a ubiquitous electricity supply will rely on all of us taking steps in concert. That includes the embrace and development of non-utility-based energy supplies and practices.   


Though utilities and vendors may well come forward with claims that smart meters, advanced metering infrastructure and outage management systems aided their response to the hurricane, I'd be skeptical at best. Let's not let a major catastrophe and, thus, an opportunity to learn from what might become the new norm of extreme weather, lead us into a rerun of the smart grid hype cycle. 

Let's scrutinize any claims and demand well-reviewed evidence for any technology that played a role in hardening and resilience during Hurricane Sandy. And let's begin an honest conversation about the limits of technology in extreme weather events and the long road for a smarter, modern grid and what elements deserve tactical and strategic investments. That will include the growing awareness among utilities that societal players must take matters into their own hands to ensure resilience in the face of future threats to the grid. 

Utilities will come to see investments by, say, cities and towns, the military, front line responders like police and fire and medical personnel, hospitals, universities and, eventually, building owners and homeowners in creating microgrids, even pico-grids, and distributed energy resources as beneficial. Utilities don't have the capital to do it all, nor will a centralized grid ever achieve the reliability that self-sufficient nodes can add. Coastal cities will need civic buildings that achieve self-sufficiency so they can double as storm shelters when the next big one hits. Electric vehicles may even gain market traction if they serve as mobile storage units. Handheld, hand-cranked units that inexpensively combine lights and radios and are capable of recharging cell phones will be developed and will sell like hot cakes next time around. 

Lots of angles to explore here, with a historic opportunity to reassess electricity's value to society and how we go about securing that value under duress.

Later this week, we'll look to the experts for an explanation of the integration and data analysis challenges that will mark the maturation of the smart grid, as well as alternative visions to the utility-centric, centralized grid model that suffered so badly at Sandy's hands. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily 

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Smarter grid

I'm hoping to see in my day magnetic pole-top connections, and automatic shutoff when the system experiences a detached line (from ice, wind, trees), or even the threat of such.  Maybe the poles will be somewhat rubberized, to give and flex enough to better withstand hurricane winds.  We build on the cheap, and our insurance might not cover the costs of repair and lost revenue, if we've only covered the skeleton. . . I think we can do better, the question is, when?

You're not writing too much about a modern grid.

I know that folks are tired of the term "smart grid" and that it means different things to different people (and not very much at all to consumers). The fact is that we must have a profoundly new grid for the 21st century, one that makes maximum use of the best electronics, telecommunications, information and energy technologies to improve reliability, efficiency, security, safety, sustainability and customer service. Hurricane Sandy is only the latest event to spotlight how inadquate our national grid in terms of meeting customers' understandable expectations about all of these characteristics. If we don't reconfigure our approach to the production, distribution and utilization of electric energy, our national competitiveness and our national security are at stake.

I have been telling audiences and readers for several years that solutions like good automated outage management systems have pretty much become standard prudent utility practice. After all, hundreds of utilities have been using OMS with great success for more than a decade. Anytime a utility experiences a service interruption that affects a lot of customers, or a few major C&I customers, and/or does so over an extended period of time, they are going to be challenged by customers, sometimes in regulatory or judicial venues. They will be challenged by customers' government representatives as well. There is growing legal liability for not taking full advantage of the best technologies for the most intelligent grid.

Existing and emerging technologies make it possible to better operate and manage the existing grid and to better plan a new kind of grid for the future. A cornerstone of the new approach is decentralization. Bob Metcalfe was right . . . we spent a half century building a way to deliver information - the Internet, and we will spend the next half century doing the same for energy - the Enernet.

Steven Collier (aka smartgridman)

Thanks Steve

I'm of the notion that the first century of the grid was about extending it to all at low cost. The second century will be about hardening and resilience, now that electricity is the lifeblood of our digital economy -- and lights ain't bad either. 

Let's talk more about the components of a future grid. 

Regards, Phil Carson 

microcontrollers and water

They don't go well together. 

 Author, Embedded Controller Forth for the 8051 Family ;)


Readers should find an article in the November 19th issue of the Wass Street Journal by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Mr. Black Swan) called "Learning to Love Volatility".  It's quite thought-provoking and it is probably a better foundation for starting the conversation on hardening the grid than anything else I can think of.

Next, we need to consider not only how much society is willing to spend in order to avoid another Sandy (or Katrina or Irene or ice storm) aftermath, but the best way to go about it.  If we're willing to spend the money, perhaps we need to consider doing something other than simply rebuilding the same infrastructure.

Jack Ellis

Tahoe City, CA



I read the piece by Mr. Black Swan and "got" most of it. Wouldn't it be fair, though, to say that his "unfragile" really = "hardening"? And that what we're after really is resiliency? 

I agree (but am pessimistic) that causes will be addressed. In an age of unparalleled greed, why would anyone who profits from fossil fuel use want to mitigate GHG emissions? What, just to make the world habitable for their children and grandchildren? Sorry to say I don't think the various parties who profit short term are going to agree to any measures, let alone their bought-and-paid-for representatives in Congress. 

But certainly applying legitimate findings to modernize the grid with flexibility and resilience in mind is not only possible but cost effective. 

Thanks for pointing out a good read today. Something outside the box. 

Regards, Phil Carson 

Sandy and the Smart Grid

A winner can't be declared in an unfair contest such as this. Smart Grid technology is automation (meters aside which are end user devices and don't automate but do report) and if there was something to restore would have helped. No amount of automation can help when the substations are under feet of water or hundreds of miles of overhead lines are a tangled mess. Smart grid technology will identify the loss of a transformer in a substation letting dispatch know at 2am how many customers are affected and will re-align the grid automatically to minimize those affected. That's what we should expect of the "Smart Grid".

Phil writes about non-utility based energy supplies as a potential part of the solution. How many facilities with co-generation or emergency standby systems were able to operate? In urban settings, the electrical systems are unfortunately relagated to the basements where they are vulnerable to flooding brought about by storms such as these.  Unless the electric supply system is hardned against events such a s Sandy, there will be continued  large scale outages. Hardening is not trivial, the expense alone would be prohibitive and most likely, not economically justifiable.

There are no easy solutions in the event of natural disasters. Utility crews work long hard days to re-build the damage and get the power back on working from the substations out to get the power restored to the customers, many of which are the workers themselves.

Tom Proios, P.E.
Chicago. IL


My headline was a bit unfair


Thanks for your thoughts. I had tongue halfway in cheek on that headline, but I debase myself to get a discussion going!

I agree that the emerging consensus is that massive physical damage gets addressed first and that automation systems can't be expected to a play a role in hardening. 

What about all those backup generators being located from the basement, prone to flooding and the first floor, 20 feet above street level? Not a great real estate principle, unless you're concerned with business continuity, which is getting its due right now.

Regards, Phil Carson

Sandy the smartest

Dear Phil,
following the stream of your thoughts, I'd add the following considerations:
- an underground network would be considered the smartest grid because the best in "preparations and resilience in anticipation of extended outages after a massive storm". Consequently: let's bury "Smart Grids".
- smart is a behavioural concept (ability to adapt), then you should compare behaviours, rather than outcomes Vs expenditures
- a similar question is about my performing intelligent house, equipped with large automation and outperforming confort, what about in case of a hurricane (or a war) attack? Did I miss to program defence capabilities? Shall a good insurance contract be enough?
- If we do not set correctly the problem, we can easily state the smarter grid is the non-existing grid. That is, you will not be worried by disaster recovery needs if you have no disaster, or no disaster possibility

Best regards