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article imageHurricanes shed light on the vulnerabilities in U.S. power grid

By Karen Graham     Sep 12, 2017 in Technology
Two Category 4 hurricanes, back-to-back, not only caused extensive damage, massive flooding, and loss of lives – they also laid bare the poor condition of the nation's electrical grid.
In Texas, the Department of Energy estimated that over 300,000 customers were left without power in the hurricane's wake. The good news was that smart meters helped utilities to identify power outages. But even so, getting power back on has taken days and in some cases, weeks.
In Florida, Hurricane Irma has left close to 7 million customers without power. That's 64 percent of the state's power customers, and there are several counties where 80-90 percent of customers are without power. Florida Power & Light (FPL) also had invested in smart grid technology, allowing it to pinpoint outages without customers needing to report them.
Hurricane Harvey flooded large swathes of Texas and Louisiana
Hurricane Harvey flooded large swathes of Texas and Louisiana
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File
A closer look at utilities in Texas
In Houston, utility company, CenterPoint Energy was able to quickly get power restored to thousands of its customers because of a smart meter network that was keeping it up to date on which customers were without power, according to its Twitter feed.
Center Point invested millions of dollars in a smart meter system that also includes a fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR) system. FLISR uses a combination of automated and operator-controlled switches on its distribution circuits to reroute power quickly after a power outage.
A big problem has been the extent of the flooding, in Texas as well as in Florida. When utility crews can finally access flooded substations, they will need to wait for equipment to dry out before they can inspect for damage before switching the power back on, the DOE points out.
With flooded houses  totaled cars  downed power grids and damaged infrastructure  rebuilding from Ha...
With flooded houses, totaled cars, downed power grids and damaged infrastructure, rebuilding from Harvey, which struck southeast Texas and part of Louisiana, will require large-scale mobilization
Brendan Smialowski, AFP
Center Point has a large share of its lines running underground, 24,000 miles, compared to 28,700 miles above ground. And while underground transmission lines are safe from wind damage, flooding is another thing. Only a handful of Center Point's underground circuits are protected with waterproof or water-resistant gear.
A closer look at Florida's utility crisis
While Florida evaded a “worst case scenario,” with Hurricane Irma, the hurricane's true destructive power was unleashed on the electrical grid. Nor a single county was left untouched as the storm plowed through the state.
FPL spokesman Rob Gould said, “This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the longest restoration and most complex in U.S. history.”
With FPL's $3 billion investment in smart technologies to its grid system, such as sophisticated sensors and automated switches, the utility was able to prevent some outages and mitigate others during Hurricanes Matthew and Hermine in 2016.
Hurricane Matthew caused the largest loss of life in any event in 2016  mainly in Haiti
Hurricane Matthew caused the largest loss of life in any event in 2016, mainly in Haiti
HECTOR RETAMAL, AFP
With Hurricane Matthew, 99 percent of FPL's customers had their power restored within two days, while with Hermine, power was restored within a few hours.However, with Irma, there has been extensive damage to FPL's most vital and central components of its west coast grid.
With Irma's destruction, restoring power in Florida is not only going to be lengthy but in many cases, dangerous. Nuclear power plants will have to go back online, transformer and substations will need to be dried out and everything must be checked before power can be restored.
The threat of extreme weather is becoming an increasingly important calculation for energy markets. Warmer atmospheric and ocean temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions will bring heavier rainfall from greater amounts of moisture in the air and worse storm surges from higher sea levels. As a nation, we have to have a serious discussion about how we are going to mitigate the impacts of climate change because we are now seeing it in action.
More about Hurricanes, Flooding, Electrical grid, Smart grid, Energy storage