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Smarter electric grids could help us weather stormy future

Manhattan, New York experiences a power outage late on Oct. 29, 2012.
Manhattan, New York experiences a power outage late Oct. 29, 2012.Allison Joyce / Getty Images file

As of Tuesday morning, Sandy was blamed for power outages affecting more than 8 million people. Although of little help to people in the dark today, so-called smart-grid technologies being installed around the country will make the electric grid more resilient to future storms, according to an industry expert.

One caveat: “It is economically unfeasible to storm-proof your system, and by storm-proof I mean resilient to anything that could happen,” Dean Oskvig, president of engineering consulting firm Black & Veatch’s global energy business, told NBC News Tuesday.

But utilities are installing technology such as self-healing switches that automatically route power around outages in an effort to minimize disruptions to service, he said.

Much of the smart grid is really about the installation of sensors and other equipment that offer utilities real-time monitoring of the grid so that they can detect and isolate power outages more quickly, which limits their spread and impact. 

Real-time monitoring of the grid also enables integration of small-scale distributed power stations onto the grid, which can provide electricity to a neighborhood, for example, when the city’s main plant is down.

Distributed power stations harken back to early days of the electric system when it was a hodgepodge of “small individual generators all over the place and it was simply chaotic,” Oskvig said. As a result, greater reliability and efficiency drove evolution toward a system that relies on central power plants.

Today, however, the communications technology that underpins smart-grid systems “has a way of accommodating a lot more distributed generation than we were able to do in the past,” he added. 

By the same token, a more intelligent grid is able to accommodate increased wind and solar power, which are plagued by intermittency.

“But, when you are faced with something like the storm out east, a smart grid will only take you so far,” Oskvig said. 

Utilities can make their grids more resilient with more traditional approaches such as putting more of their power lines underground, which puts them out of the way of wind-toppled trees. But undergrounding lines costs several million dollars per mile versus a few hundred thousand dollars for overhead lines.

And even when lines are underground, that doesn’t mean the system is storm-proof. Power lines in New York City, for example, are already mostly underground. That didn’t stop floodwater from shutting down substations, Oskvig noted.

What measures a utility takes to make their systems more resilient to storms is a cost-benefit calculation. Sandy is considered a once-in-a-generation-type storm. Is it worth spending to put in underground lines, install self-healing technology or build more, smaller distributed generation plants?

Given that Sandy is the type of storm that experts believe is consistent with global climate change, a more resilient grid seems prudent for our stormier future, a future that by some accounts is already here.

In the last year New York, for example, has seen two tropical storms and a “freak” snowstorm on Halloween 2011 that dumped a foot of snow. Each of those storms led to costly power outages that were, in isolation, considered rare events.

The cost of implementing the technologies required to smarten up and improve the grid will cost about $1.5 trillion over the next two decades, Mark Brownstein with the Environmental Defense Fund told American Public Media’s Marketplace on Monday. 

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.