How smart meters help fight power outages

Our hearts go out to the millions of residents in the eastern U.S. who are suffering power outages in the worst heat ever. In June alone, there were 3,215 record high temperatures around the U.S. — and nature added insult to injury with powerful thunderstorms that knocked out power lines from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic.
How can smart meters help in this situation?…
First, smart meters can help prevent or mitigate power outages.

  • Outage notification: Smart meters can transmit to utilities real-time outage alerts (the so-called “last gasp”). Sometime this notifies utilities about outages sooner than customers can call in — a considerable benefit to both utilities and customers.
  • Closer monitoring of high-priority energy uses: With the right kind of back-end software, smart meters can specify certain meters as “bellwether” meters. Typically these are installed at high-priority sites such as hospitals, fire stations, and traffic signals. The software sends outage alerts from these locations to the utility’s outage management system for priority restoration.
  • Is the power back on?: Smart meters can verify whether power has been restored to all meters. Storms often cause “nested” outages in which there may be two breaks in the power lines to an area: one below (or “nested” within) the other. A utility may fix the break closer to the substation, but not even know about the second. Smart meter software can “ping” all meters on the circuit to verify restoration — and also notify the utility if some of the smart meters are still out of power.
  • Communicating with customers: Utilities can use smart meter data to help keep the public informed. For instance, the Jacksonville (FL) Electric Authority uses Google Maps to show consumers whether power is on at schools after a storm.

In severe storms, falling trees and wind gusts threaten overhead lines. Smart meters can’t eliminate these threats, but they can help make outages shorter and restoration more reliable.
Once powerlines are restored, smart meters also help ensure that the grid isn’t overwhelmed by all those air conditioners suddenly getting turned on. Smart meters enable demand response programs. For instance:

  • Large businesses and industrial customers.These heavy power users can sign up to reduce their usage on peak days, and get paid by utilities or third parties for shaving peak demand.
  • Residential customers. Many utilities offer load control or dynamic pricing programs. Pepco’s Energy Wiseprogram gives customers am up-front payment of $40-$80, plus an additional $40-$80 per summer, in exchange for letting the utility automatically control their air conditioners on the few summer days when system demand is highest. Customers choose the level of control and comfort they want to keep.
  • Peak time rebates. San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison pay customers a rebate to reduce peak load manually or via automated response. Again, these programs operate only on a few critical peak days each year (up to 10 or so). SDG&E customers who have a smart meter installed participate automatically — all they have to do is respond on event days, or not. It’s their choice.

Let’s hope the heatwave and dangerous thunderstorms abate, and the current power outages are restored quickly.
This article originally appeared on eMeter’s Smart Grid Watch blog. Chris King is the Chief Regulatory Officer for eMeter. He is a nationally recognized authority on energy regulation and competitive energy markets, and is widely recruited by regulators and legislators to consult on technology issues in electric restructuring and grid management.