Outages, But Also Advances

Hurricane Matthew leaves damage; Smart Grid shows promise 

Despite its unpredictable path and a nonetheless damaging imprint, Hurricane Matthew’s effect on the Southeastern United States could be a sign of improvements in utilities infrastructure as well as an indicator of the promise for recent implementations of Smart Grid technology.

As of Monday, October 10, Matthew, the largest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Sandy in 2012, had already left significant damage in its path. The storm’s death toll in the United States was at least three dozen as of Wednesday, according to various reports, with North Carolina—where 20 fatalities were recorded—taking the hardest hit. As of Monday, six people died in Florida, and authorities in Georgia and South Carolina had reported three deaths in each state, in the context of larger loss of life in island nations of Haiti and the Bahamas, where death tolls have collectively accumulated into the hundreds. From an infrastructure standpoint, more than 650,000 customers were still without electricity on Monday morning, according to local utilities, with about half of those in North Carolina and Virginia. At its peak, more than two million households and businesses lost power at one time or another during the storm. Much of the outages can be attributed to rampant flooding damage.

10-7-hurricane-matthew-path-10-pmjpg-b63a475350fabdf8

Hurricane Matthew’s location on Friday, October 7.

While natural disasters leave no bright side for those most severely affected, there are some encouraging signs for utilities companies and the Smart Grid.

For example, Florida Power & Light, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc. which was slammed by seven hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, has since spent more than $2 billion in weather-hardening equipment and smart grid technology. Duke Energy Corp. has invested $5 billion on grid-modernization efforts in Florida and the Carolinas over the past decade.

“We’ve been pushing the envelope on getting new technology,” Eric Silagy, Florida Power & Light’s chief executive, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

Among the upgrades that are paying off are sensors that provide early warning of flood danger to electrical substations—so power can be turned off, preventing permanent damage—and gear that allows electrical circuits to recover from flying debris without having to wait for a crew to show up and turn them back on. “The investment we’ve made is starting to show a real payback to customers,” Silagy said. Of the 957,000 Florida Power customers who lost power, only 56,000 remained without service Monday morning. 

Gulf Power, a utility owned by Atlanta-based Southern Co., that serves 450,000 metered customers in northwest Florida, claims a 40% reduction in the number and duration of power outages since 2010, partly due to storm-hardening efforts. Among other measures, it has installed 700 advanced “reclosers” that handle electrical faults caused by things like tree limbs getting thrown against power lines. The gear re-energizes lines without action by work crews, if it determines the threat was temporary. “Now, a lot of our system is kind of self-healing,” said Jeff Rogers, a Gulf Power spokesman.

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