How to Keep the Power On

It’s been a summer of power outages as extreme weather has been wreaking havoc on the electrical grid. Violent thunderstorms, tornadoes, and record-high temperatures have all taken turns knocking out the power across the East, from Michigan and Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. The lights even went out in Times Square and Manhattan’s West Side due to a faulty protection system.

These outages are reminders of the need to continually innovate to ensure our power networks are as reliable and as resilient as possible, particularly in the face of increasingly volatile weather resulting from climate change and ever-rising demand for power. Ideally, all electricity distribution systems should be able to access power from multiple sources, rapidly pinpoint problems, isolate troubled circuits to prevent outages from spreading, and promptly restore power when it is lost.

This level of service can be achieved by building redundancies into power supply networks, and embracing state-of-the art technology, including self-healing grids that automatically isolate faults and reconnect with functioning power feeds; software that not only detects when an electrical wire falls off its pole, but also shuts the power off before it hits the ground; and microgrids, which are local energy grids that can detach from the larger grid to operate autonomously.

Utilities know they need to always wear a belt with suspenders. Redundancy and resiliency are the mantras of utility operations.

But the truth is the nation’s electricity distribution infrastructure often has inadequate backup capability when adversely impacted. While transmission systems that send bulk power from generating plants to electrical substations have redundancy in all aspects of their operation, distribution systems that carry power from local substations often have minimal backup for the feeders that deliver electricity to customers. This frequently plays a role in electrical outages.

Equally important to smart technology and redundancy is the need to harden the power distribution network. In many regions, utilities have been replacing wooden poles with concrete or steel poles to better support power lines. But the best method in most of the country is to place electrical wires underground, safe from wind, trees, ice, and animals, as utilities have done in some of the nation’s most densely populated cities.

Undergrounding power lines is not cheap. But to better serve their customers utilities need to make investments—whether through hardening their networks, adding redundancy, increasing system protection, improving isolation of electrical faults, or updating other operating technology. San Diego Gas and Electric, for example, has invested $1 billion over the past decade to strengthen its infrastructure and build a sophisticated monitoring system.

The bottom line is greater reliability often means substantially higher electric bills. Consumers generally are willing to pay more for better products and services. The same should hold true for the electrical grid. This is why it’s critical for utilities to let customers know what they can improve, and to actively engage with local community leaders and government officials, as well as regulators, to determine how willing they are to help pay for measures that will increase reliability.

Gregg Edeson is the reliability and resiliency lead at PA Consulting and the ReliabilityOne program director. Wei Du is an energy and utilities expert with PA Consulting and a former senior analyst and engineer for Con Edison.