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Storm highlights need for a smarter power grid

One by one, power lines began surrendering to the storm last autumn that blanketed the Buffalo area with two feet of snow and left nearly 1 million residents without electricity. Utility crews from the Power Authority and 10 other states and Canada came to help National Grid and New York State Electric and Gas clear the streets of felled trees and get the power restored, an ordeal that lasted nearly two weeks.

The freakish storm left utility workers in the dark in another way. Many had no way of knowing which lines were damaged or whether the repairs were successfully done, suggesting a need for better grid technology.

In weather-related catastrophes, local lines that supply electricity to consumers are the likeliest to fail and take the most time to repair because components in the local network -- from substations, to transformers, to circuit breakers in homes -- can't communicate with the utility companies when damaged or under stress. Residents often have to leave porch lights burning to prove that the repairs were successful.

It's no wonder that in November, the Fitch Ratings Service released a report charging that the nation's electrical transmission system is in serious need of overhaul, citing underinvestment in the grid and outdated technologies as the cause. In New York State, electric demand has nearly doubled over the past 25 years and yet not one major transmission line has been built in 20 years despite a nearly 400 percent increase in energy transfers as a result of deregulation.

While the Energy Policy Act of 2005 addresses the need for more federal oversight of transmission projects, the ability to site and attract risk capital for new projects remains problematic, which is why retrofitting the grid with new technology is essential.

Disturbances on the grid develop on a time scale measured in one-sixtieth of a second -- the cycle time of alternating current, which is glacially slow when compared to the trouble-shooting speed of computers and the Internet. One reason problems take so long to detect and fix is the age of the equipment. According to the Fitch Report, some 60 percent of circuit breakers and 70 percent of feeder cables are more than 30 years old.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo are now investigating ways to retrofit the present-day grid with new technology and communication systems. The most likely solution would be to place sensors with integrated processors and wireless capabilities at critical points in the transmission and distribution network.

W. James Sarjeant, UB's James Clerk Maxwell chair professor of the Energy Systems Institute, informs me that these sensors, no bigger than the head of a pin, need not be embedded into the grid but can simply be placed near enough to pick up electromagnetic distress signals.

The signals would then be relayed by fiber optics or microwaves to computers that would make sense of them. The word would then go out to crews as to the nature, extent and precise location of the damage.

New technologies can even compensate for a shortage of lines. Several years ago, the Power Authority shouldered a $41 million investment in a promising technology called a Convertible Static Compensator, which we installed at our Energy Control Center near Utica. This device significantly increases the amount of electricity that can be moved reliably over our existing transmission lines by cutting the time needed for operators to route power away from heavily loaded lines to under-utilized ones. This helps bolster the transfer capacity of the existing transmission system by over 200 megawatts -- enough to serve an additional 160,000 homes -- without the addition of a single new line.

Retrofitting the power transmission and distribution system with new technology can help us reduce costs and speed repairs in the near term. Over the longer term, the existing grid will be superseded by a dynamic, new electrical infrastructure called Grid 2030, a vision spearheaded by top people in academia, government, the electric utility, information technology and capital equipment industries to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond.

This grid would feature high temperature superconducting cable and transformers to lower power losses. It would accommodate distributed generation, such as fuel cells and solar projects. It would expand transmission in congested conduits to lower prices. And it would even be linked to back-up generators that could turn themselves on and off in the face of alternating demand.

Sensors and dedicated communications links would trigger switches to route power over different lines and help to control surges that might otherwise trigger blackouts. With further enhancements, this version of a smart grid would even be capable of repairing itself in the highly unlikely event of a snowstorm in October.

Timothy S. Carey is president and chief executive officer of the New York Power Authority.

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