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Smart Grids Could Reduce Impact of Hurricanes Like Irene

By Boyd Cohen

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., Co-Author, Climate Capitalism

Writing this last Saturday afternoon, the nation and the world are warily observing the path and wrath of Hurricane Irene.  There have already been documented losses of life as well as reports that more than a million Americans have been left without power so far.

Given that the changing climate is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of storms it is worth considering what could we do to minimize the impacts of these storms on communities throughout the U.S.

Smart grids provide a major opportunity to minimize power loss for storm-affected communities.  Triple Pundit has been active in promoting dialog about smart grids over the past few years.  Southern California Edison defines a smart grid as “an increasingly intelligent and highly automated electric power system that utilizes technology advancements in telecommunications, information, computing, sensing, controls, materials, in addition to other grid technologies.”
Of course the loss of energy during a prolonged storm can lead to significant threats to the health and safety of our communities. This comes from disrupted supplies of potable water (particularly people living in high rises), loss of phone service for emergency calls, loss of air conditioning, and threats to people who depend on medical machines for survival.

The Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse has an interactive map illustrating smart grid projects underway in the U.S. from smart metering to advanced transmission and distribution systems. (See below)

As you can see, the East Coast of the U.S., along the path of Irene, has several proposed projects under consideration or in development.

Smart grids enable real-time digital transmission of data regarding grid performance, locations of problem areas, and mechanisms for redistributing energy. They are also commonly accompanied by enhanced ability to “plug-in” multiple energy sources including distributed energy.  For example, green buildings with solar panels can not only receive energy from the grid but easily return excess energy (e.g. on a weekend when no one is working in the building) back to the smart grid.

So how can smart grids actually help reduce vulnerabilities to climate events?  ComEd (Commonwealth Edison), an energy company serving nearly 4 million customers in Northern Illinois, recently explained how their proposed smart grid would have significantly reduced outages from the record-setting storms that passed through in July.

“If Smart Grid technology had been in place, here's how it would have minimized the impact of the storm: ComEd would have known customers were out of power without them having to call us. Technology would have pinpointed outages allowing us to dispatch crews more quickly to restore service. Digital automation would have rerouted power or corrected a problem before an outage occurs meaning fewer customers would have seen outages, and thousands of customers may have never experienced an outage. With the June 21 storm, we estimate that 100,000 customers would have never experienced an outage. With the July 11 storm, we estimate that approximately 175,000 customers would have never experienced an outage.”

Smart grids pose major benefits to our economies and societies.  They can allow for more diverse and distributed energy supplies to assist with our growing demand for energy.  For example, the European Union seeks to develop a regional smart grid that would allow different forms of intermittent renewables, such as wind from the north and solar from the south, to be plugged into the grid.  This can allow energy to flow where it is needed most.  Smart grids can also play an important role in the electrification of our transportation system.  Electric Vehicles (EVs) can be plugged into smart grids and be charged during low demand times and actually feed energy back to grid during peak times.  Imagine how much EVs could contribute if all manufacturers followed Ford’s recent inclusion of solar panels as an option on their EVs.

But as we experience more intense storms due to continued climate change, we need to begin preparing for the new normal.  Resilient communities, cities and countries will take proactive steps to mitigate the risks of intense storms, draughts and related weather impacts from climate change.  Smart grids pose a significant opportunity to modernize our energy distribution systems in ways that accommodate new energy sources and importantly minimize the impacts from major weather events.  As Luke Clemente from GE stated following severe storms in Georgia in 2010, “Managing the inconvenience and danger of power outages caused by storms like the ones we’re experiencing this week is a great challenge for the utility industry. As Mother Nature turns out the lights across the country, we are reminded of the broader impact that a smarter grid can have on consumers. Today’s smart grid solutions can reduce the number of customers affected by power outages and minimize the impact of outages that do occur by getting power online quicker than ever before.”

Smart grids can help grow our economy, assist us in making the transition to renewable and distributed energy, accelerate the growth of the EV industry, and minimize power outages from more frequent and more severe weather events.


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Image credit flickr user: Ian Muttoo

This series uses the hashtag #climatecapitalism

Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Read more stories by Boyd Cohen