Hurricane Matthew Tests Electric Grid’s New Storm-Resistant Technology
Early indications suggest investments are paying off
Hurricane Matthew is stress-testing a costly new effort by utilities and the U.S. government to make the nation’s electric grid more storm-resistant. Early indications: the investment is paying off.
From 2008 through 2017, the U.S. government and utilities are expected to spend more than $32 billion on smart-grid and storm-hardening technology, according to a federal report. That includes systems designed to resist wind, flying debris and flooding—and allow power providers to identify damage and restore electric service more quickly.
A stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009 pumped $4.5 billion into electric-system upgrades, supplementing an even larger investment by utilities in cutting-edge gear.
The money helped utilities swap out old-fashioned meters for 65 million digital meters—about a third of the U.S. total—that now are able to ping utility control rooms when lights flicker out so outage locations are instantly known. Other gear automatically isolates problems and reroutes electricity around trouble spots so fewer people lose power.
“What we’re seeing is the powerful convergence of technology and software and analytics” tailored to the energy industry, said Jean-Pascal Tricoire, chairman and chief executive of French-based Schneider Electric, a major supplier of power industry equipment and software.
While Hurricane Matthew hasn’t provided the punch weather forecasters initially feared, it is still proving to be a deadly and disruptive storm. As of Monday morning, at least 21 people had died and more than one million locations remained without power, mostly in the Carolinas, which suffered heavy flooding damage.
More than two million households and businesses lost power, at various times, as the slow-moving storm raked Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and Virginia. Still, some experts said the storm likely would have wreaked more havoc on electricity systems along the Atlantic coast, if not for the grid upgrades.
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,” said Eric Silagy, Florida Power & Light’s chief executive.
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,” Mr. 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 Southern Co. that serves 450,000 metered customers in northwest Florida, said it has seen 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.
Chicago-based S&C Electric Company, a major utility supplier since 1909, is helping utilities replace old-fashioned fuses with reusable devices that reduce unnecessary outages. Costing about $3,000 apiece, they pay for themselves in about two years, said Michael Edmonds, the company’s president of U.S. business.