Navigant Research Blog

Sandy, Smart Grid, and the Human Factor

Bob Gohn — October 30, 2012

As a Boston metro area resident, I have the impression that major grid disruptions from catastrophic storms are becoming annual events.  Last year, after outrunning Hurricane Irene, I considered the relative promise of smart grid technologies in the face of natural disasters.  Now, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, this issue is coming up again.

The fact is that no system intelligence can overcome the massive destruction of a major storm like Sandy.  Transmitting electricity still requires wires (despite advances in wireless power – see our report, Wireless Power), and overhead wires succumb to high winds, while underground wires and equipment are susceptible to flooding.  New York City’s Consolidated Edison, operator of one of the most robust distribution grids in the world, is wrestling with these forces as I write.  Physical reconstruction, by people working long hours, is still needed.

However, distribution automation technology did appear to help me.  At the height of the storm, which was admittedly much less fierce here north of Boston than along the mid-Atlantic coast, the power flickered in such a way that I could almost sense the reclosers and sectionalizers actively executing their fault location, isolation, and service recovery (FLISR) algorithms, isolating the failed segment.  Unfortunately, I reside on that segment, but crews were somehow able to restore power in under 4 hours, even as the storm continued to rage.  Kudos!

As I noted last year, the biggest complaint in the wake of Hurricane Irene was the lack of good and accurate consumer restoration information.  Local regulators here in Massachusetts provided harsh post-Irene assessments in this regard, and the utilities appear to have taken note.  In the build-up to Sandy, I received proactive notifications from my utility detailing what to expect, where to go for information, with even an offer for a smart phone app that could monitor restoration progress.  (This was much more helpful than the inane recommendation of my broadband provider, who asked that I report broadband outages via their website.)  Now, less than 24 hours after the fiercest winds subsided, it’s still too early to see if the local utilities can live up to their promise, but initial responses are encouraging.  If advanced outage and workforce management applications enabled by field-based smart grid technology can help set accurate consumer restoration expectations, then we will have made a major advance.

On the downside, the on/off power fluctuations appear to have damaged my Internet router, and worse, my water well pump seems to have also given up the ghost.  So while I have power, I have no water.  I can’t be sure these were damaged by power spikes, but it seems likely.

As the storm raged I also found myself wondering about all the work that affected utilities have recently put into updating their GIS databases, reconciling cumulative 100-year records of the distribution network with the actual installations in the field, in anticipation of leveraging the models for voltage optimization or other upgrades.  Will work crews coming in from as far as Texas have the same record-keeping prowess and knowledge as the local crews? There’s nothing like a major storm to scramble utility “as-built” records!

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