Recent outages less likely in the future
Our digital society expects electricity to be available at the flip of a switch or the push of a button. A recent outage in India, affecting over half a billion people, and another outage in June on the east coast of the United States, lasting for several days, reminds us how ill prepared we are to live without electricity. Although the causes of outages vary, from weather and natural disasters, equipment failures and mistakes by individuals, to terrorist acts, their impact leaves many in the dark, uncomfortable, and unproductive. The good news is that recent outages aside, the overall reliability of the electricity supply continues to improve every day, even as our demand for electricity grows.
Historically, the installation of new and better grid devices, such as transformers, and investment in redundant assets, drove most of the improvements in grid reliability. When advances in equipment slowed, and difficulty in siting new lines for redundancy increased, utilities turned to technology to improve reliability. The introduction of technology to improve reliability began in the 1970s and grew over the subsequent decades, focused primarily on the installation of both remote terminal units and microprocessor-based relays to monitor and protect the grid. Early in the 21st century, the appearance of new technologies for sensing, monitoring, and controlling; coupled with widespread availability of telecommunications, enabled greater reliability and reduced outage duration.
Today’s smart meters “announce” an outage to a grid’s operator before a customer can pick up the phone while the automated switching technology attempts to reconnect all customers. If there is a failure to reconnect every customer, field devices coupled with control center solutions automatically reconfigure the grid closest to the failure to limit the outage scope. Restoration for many customers occurs even before the utility dispatches a crew. Those customers remaining off supply still experience shorter outages as crews have mobile devices displaying real-time data from sensors and monitoring equipment. These devices enable close coordination between crews and headquarters to improve switching, resupply of failed parts, and safety. The investment in technology made thus far has increased reliability, as demonstrated by improvements in industry standard metrics such SAIDI, SAIFI, and MAIFI.
But investing in technology that improves reliability proves beneficial beyond emergencies. These same technology investments deliver significant value by enabling better use of resources and assets, while optimally configuring the grid. The same sensing, monitoring, and control technologies enable more precise voltage management at customer locations reducing overall energy consumption invisibly to the customer while improving the quality of the delivered electricity. In the future, existing and emerging technologies will constantly manage electricity delivery, further increasing reliability, electricity quality, and reducing outage duration.
Several large outages in the recent past could have been avoided had certain technologies and methods available today been in place. Will technology investment result in fewer and shorter outage in the future? Yes! Will electricity become more reliable and societies come to rely even more heavily on electricity? Yes! Will all outages become only a memory? No! Although less frequent and with shorter durations, outages will continue to occur due to natural disasters and other events that remind us how reliant we are on reliable electricity.