updated 7/31/2012 10:19:21 AM ET 2012-07-31T14:19:21

Half the country of India is without power today in the biggest blackout the world has ever seen. Three regional power grids collapsed from too much demand, leaving miners trapped underground, subway services at a halt and people sweltering in the summer heat.

In late June, heat-driven storms pounded the U.S. East Coast with little warning and knocked out power to 3 million homes and businesses. Over a million were still in the dark a week later.

Are we doomed to experience blackouts every time a big storm comes along or can technology find a way keep the lights from going out?

Experts say new technology may help restore power more quickly, but that we are stuck with our line-and-pole distribution system for decades to come. In other words, we, in the United States, at least, will still face power outages and so-called blackouts.

One solution is to make power locally produced. The idea is to combine small-scale power generation with bigger batteries inside the home as a way of weaning your house off the electric grid. That scenario could be a more reliable and quieter back-up system than a firing up a diesel generator when the lights go out, according to Bob Gohn, vice president of research for Boulder-based Pike Research.

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“There’s no magic technology that’s going to allow us to transmit power wirelessly,” said Gohn. “But there is a future with greater distributed power that is more independent, having your own power generation or with solar or gas power plants, and using storage systems to run your home for a while.”

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Some communities are already experimenting with home-powered electric storage systems that combine solar panels, electrical vehicles and smart- metering technology to allow homeowners greater freedom from utility grids. Austin, Sacramento and Portland are all working on such pilot projects. Solar cells generate power, which is stored in EV, which is then used to power home appliances in case of emergency.

“You may not run your entire house,” Gohn said. “But you could keep your refrigerator going for a while."

The so-called "smart grid” has been touted as a way for utilities to take advantage of wireless technology and more advanced software systems to allow them to get a better handle on outages and to reroute power around problem areas.

In the outage this weekend in the Mid-Atlantic states, smart meters provided power companies data about which houses are out without owners having to call in. Many of these wireless smart meters have been installed in just the past few months.

“They won’t prevent an outage, but they might allow you to restore things more quickly,” said Matt Wakefield, senior program manager of smart grid systems for the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-based non-profit group.

Smart meters are the first step in modernizing a power grid that is, in many cases, still a relic of a century-old patchwork of delivering electricity. These devices collect information about power use by the hour from homes and transmit it to utilities. Some critics worry they will be used to eavesdrop on ratepayers' lives, but many states are pushing forward with their implementation.

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Utilities are also experimenting with stronger power poles and crossbeams made of composite materials that should withstand winds and falling trees, Wakefield said.

EPRI is also building a robotic device that crawls along power lines at 2 mph looking for trouble spots. The device will get its final run-through this fall at a Lenox, Mass., research lab before being licensed to utilities. It runs on solar power and energy it picks up from the lines themselves, and can travel 80 miles a year.

In conjunction with New Mexico State University, EPRI is testing a small drone that uses HD video to check for overgrown vegetation that could bring down power lines. Despite these advances, it’s likely ratepayers will be dealing with downed power lines for a long time to come.

Some communities have buried lines, but the cost can be five to 15 times more than above-ground ones.

“As of right now we don’t have a practical solution,” said EPRI’s Wakefield.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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