We can’t stop storms, but sensors can help restore power faster

Released into public domain by Wikimedia Commons user Tomwsulcer, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snowstorm_New_Jersey_October_2011_Number_8.jpgRecent natural disasters like Hurricane Irene and the freak October snowstorm that socked the northeastern US highlight the need for a smarter electrical grid. Some homes were left without power weeks after Irene’s departure and, one week after the snowstorm, many utility customers were still in the dark.

Along with the outages (and inconvenience to consumers), the damage estimates from Hurricane Irene are currently at $10 billion to $15 billion and growing. The snowstorm is expected to carry an even higher price-tag in some places like Connecticut. Much of this was due in large part to the massive restoration efforts by utilities along the East Coast.

The length of outages and restoration of service could be drastically reduced if communications technologies were able to react in real time. Plus, from a utility point of view, there are major monetary advantages for a smarter, connected grid.

So how do we get there?

While outages certainly can’t be prevented when it comes to natural disasters, better sensing within the distribution grid, both above and below ground, can help identify damage to the grid in an effort to restore service more quickly. Utilities are full of hard-to-reach endpoints in harsh environments, including substations, distribution circuits, pad-mount boxes, and below-ground vaults. So the best place to start is to provide a communication system that works effectively given these circumstances.

Automated sensing applications, connected wirelessly, can provide feedback to utilities in near-real-time, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of the damage and react.

Basically, small bursts of information are sent back to utilities from sensors on smart meters, power transformers, power lines and substations. This saves the time and manpower that it requires to send someone to the endpoint to determine what the problem is and how to fix it. This real-time data can also assist utilities when planning and prioritizing the outage responses during large disasters.

This was a guest post by Jonas Olsen, vice president of EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) business development and strategic marketing for On-Ramp Wireless. On-Ramp provides solutions for distribution automation, some of which were put to use during the recent massive power outage in San Diego by giving the local utility a direct view into what was going on in the county-wide distribution grid. Battery-operated sensors continued throughout the event to provide data and document the eventual return to service.

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