Smart Grid, Meters, No Magic Bullet for Damage Done by Major Storms

'Electricity with brains' can speed customer recovery times, help cut consumer bills

smart grid
In the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, some policymakers and legislators say the state needs to create a smarter power grid, making the system more resilient and quicker to recover from major storms.

According to experts speaking yesterday at an event in Trenton sponsored by the New Jersey Energy Coalition, a smarter grid would help restore power to many — but not all — customers in less time. But it is not a panacea to cure all the problems created by such storms.

But there is no question that New Jersey, as well as the rest of the nation, ought to take steps to modernize its power grid, they argued.

“Without these advanced technologies, we’re not going to meet the demand of the future,’’ predicted Karen Lefkowitz, vice president of Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI), the energy conglomerate that owns Atlantic City Electric, one of four electric utilities in the state.

A smart grid is viewed by proponents as a planned nationwide network that uses information technology to deliver electricity more efficiently and reliably — so much so that advocates have called it “electricity with a brain.’’

Its benefits apply to both consumers and utilities. For customers, it could lead to fewer and shorter service interruptions during major storms. It could also mean lower bills thanks to reduced demands for electricity. For utilities, it could improve grid reliability and diminish the need for expensive capital transmission projects.

A smarter grid also is crucial to integrating cleaner sources of electricity, such as solar and wind, into the overall power supply because both technologies are intermittent sources of energy. They need to be backed up by more conventional supplies until better storage technologies for renewables are developed.

Until now, New Jersey has hardly embraced efforts to make the grid smarter, mostly due to costs, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. After Sandy, however, both lawmakers and the president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities have said that the state needs to take another look at the issue and decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Jersey Central Power & Light, probably the most widely criticized utility when it comes to restoring power after the recent storms, last week proposed a pilot project to develop a smart meter system for its customers.

Not all are convinced that the state should move aggressively to implement a smart grid, however.

It doesn’t provide the bang for the buck that some people argue,’’ said Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, in a telephone interview. “They don’t pay for themselves and I don’t think they are smart,’’ she said, referring to the so-called smart meters.

When a storm like Sandy hits the state, the outages are so extensive — 2.7 million of New Jersey’s electric customers were without power at some point — that smart meters provide little help determining where restoration efforts should be directed, according to Brand.

Utility officials disputed that view.

In a letter to customers and community leaders last month, top executives at Public Service Electric & Gas said the state’s largest utility, serving nearly 2 million customers, was hampered during the storm by the lack of information at the meter/customer level, a problem that led to increased frustration for consumers.

“To have customer-level information, we need smart grid/intelligence at the meter,’’ the letter said. “We will be looking at proposal for smart grid technology. This is a decision that must be made at the state level and clearly cost must be taken into consideration.’’

PHI, through its utilities in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington D.C., expects to have smart meters installed in all of its territory by the middle of next year, according to Lefkowitz.

“We’ve had fabulous success with AMI,’’ said Lefkowitz, referring to the advanced metering infrastructure involving smart meters.

This past summer, during a major storm described as a DeRecho — a line of intense, fast-moving storms — nearly half a million PHI customers were left without power, although the event lasted only 20 minutes, Lefkowitz said. But the smart meters sent out “last gasp’’ messages to the utility, helping it to predict the locations and extent of the outages.

As a result, the company cancelled more than 3,300 crew dispatches, enabling it to direct restoration efforts where they were most effective. Still, some customers were left without power for as long seven days, according to Lefkowitz.

In New Jersey, the company has not yet installed advanced metering systems but has equipped four utility substations in South Jersey with what industry jargon calls, “Automatic Selective & Restoration programs.” These isolate a fault in the power grid and route electricity around the problem to keep power on for most customers.

PSE&G also believes that the state needs to make the grid smarter. “When we are evaluating a storm like Sandy, the more information we have allows us to make more informed decisions,’’ said Dick Wernsing, manager of the electric assets strategy for the utility.

“If we underestimate the number of crews we need, they might be out 10 days instead of seven,’’ he said.