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Keeping the Lights On After a Storm

Clouds hang over the darkened lower Manhattan skyline on the night of Oct. 30

Photograph by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Clouds hang over the darkened lower Manhattan skyline on the night of Oct. 30

Superstorm Sandy underscored how vulnerable our nation’s electrical grid is to extreme weather—particularly the aging infrastructure on the East Coast. The storm knocked out power to more than 8.5 million homes and businesses across 21 states. We asked several experts what steps they recommend lawmakers, regulators, and utilities take to reduce future storm-related power losses.

Daniel Aldrich, associate professor of public policy, Purdue University

Decision-makers should recognize the deep vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure networks—electrical grid, water supplies, and so on—to disaster and prioritize spending to fix the problem beforehand.

Civil engineers should work hand-in-hand with city planners, utilities, social scientists, and the public to clarify how the costs for important actions like burying power lines can be amortized over several years to make the plans more appealing, and stress how spending money before a disaster always saves money (compared with spending it afterward).

Local governments should strengthen the ties that bind neighbors together to help add resilience to what are sure to be future shocks. We know that connections between neighbors prove critical when resources (such as power, gas, food, and so forth) are not available. Experiments in the U.S. and abroad have shown that we can strengthen the connection between local residents and better prepare them to work together should a disaster strike. Local citizens know more about the conditions of their neighborhood, who needs what materials, and the ways in which aid from the government can best assist the entire community as opposed to an elite few.

Finally, utilities, decision-makers, and academics should meet regularly (much like the Federal Reserve does with banks) to talk about lessons learned from disasters around the world (whether Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami or the Tohoku disaster of last year) to ensure that everyone is taking on the best practices in the field.

Jeff Lewis, director of PA Consulting Group’s ReliabilityOne study, which tracks the electric industry’s reliability across the U.S.

Utilities and lawmakers can work together to mitigate damage caused by trees, which are often the biggest contributor to power outages, by identifying critical assets and developing a more rigorous tree-trimming approach near them. Many towns and cities restrict this activity for aesthetic reasons, but during a hurricane these beautiful trees become roadblocks to crews, battering rams to wires and poles, and faults on electrical circuits.

Hurricanes Irene and Sandy have sparked much debate regarding the “undergrounding” of electrical facilities. There are a number of studies under way by both utilities and regulators to determine the best options. Undergrounding refers to moving electrical facilities such as conductors (wires) and transformers off the poles and into buried conduits and vaults to avoid damage from weather. Moving electrical facilities underground is no cure-all; it’s very expensive and does nothing to mitigate damage due to heat and flooding, which also cause equipment failures. While there is no doubt that underground networks are much more reliable than overhead systems during storms, it takes on average 2-5 times longer to restore power when underground or network outages do occur.

The federal government can play an important role in disaster recovery following an event such as Sandy. For example, the military airlifted utility crews from California and flew them to New York to support restoration efforts. Still, the effort was ad hoc and help was late to arrive in many of the hardest-hit areas. Federal, state, and local governments should establish clear guidelines for the quick mobilization of the military, including a fully contained rapid reaction force. Early decision-making on calling in military support can minimize suffering and save lives.

In both storms (Irene and Sandy), the most severe criticism was directed toward those utilities that failed to provide accurate and timely information to help manage customer expectations. Policymakers can assist customers during major storms by mandating increased communication. Recognizing that perfect information is impossible, utilities and policymakers alike should establish clear and concise communication channels and hold utilities accountable for the information provided.

The use of Twitter in particular should be noted for increasing importance; following Hurricane Irene some utilities used Twitter to correct rumors and false information on the Internet. During Hurricane Sandy, some utilities experienced a five- to tenfold increase in the number of Twitter followers and website traffic jumped. However, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are often used to air frustrations and ask questions regarding local estimated time of restoration due to the lack of this information elsewhere. Regardless of the method of communication, utilities and regulators should align expectations for the benefit of customers.

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, the association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric companies

The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy and Nor’easter Athena has been unprecedented in its size and scope. In the wake of these events, there is a renewed focus on lessons learned and steps that can be taken to further protect the electric grid from natural disasters. It’s important to consider a range of options and assess what’s most effective and appropriate for each region. All options carry costs ultimately borne by utility customers.

What is best for one region may not be best for another. For example, stronger poles may increase reliability and resilience against strong winds in the Southeast where hurricanes are more frequent. Placing wires and systems underground may be a viable option for areas beset by ice storms. But it was Sandy’s heavy rains and record tidal surge that caused massive flooding and destroyed underground utility networks in the Northeast.

A bright spot in the recovery from Sandy is that utilities have been deploying technologies that help reduce outages and their duration. “Smart grid” technologies include digital electric meters that enable utilities to remotely identify problems, as well as remote switching, which allows electricity to be rerouted to customers while avoiding failure points, until crews can be dispatched to repair problems.

Challenges and threats to uninterrupted electric service vary throughout the U.S. Key to meeting those challenges will be utilities, regulators, policymakers, federal officials, governors, state legislators, and customers working to develop strategies best for their areas.

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