THE MAGAZINE

Keeping the Lights On

By Teresa Anderson

When a small thunderstorm cell that formed in central Iowa in June 2012 grew into a monster storm called a derecho, 22 people lost their lives, and residents from the Midwest to the East Coast suffered extensive property loss and power outages. The derecho, which gets its name from the Spanish word for “straight,” is distinguished from its cousin, the tornado, (Spanish for “twist”) because its storms move in a straight line. But those storms can still do considerable harm.

In this particular instance, storm winds as high as 87 miles per hour were reported across the Baltimore-Washington metro area. Throughout the region, problems were exacerbated because 911 call centers went down, making it impossible for residents to summon first responders. About 1 million customers lost power in Virginia, resulting in the largest outage in the state’s history not related to a hurricane. Approximately 1.6 million customers lost power in Maryland, and water restrictions went into effect in the state after the water facilities in some heavily populated suburban counties lost power. Disruptions to credit card verification services meant that even businesses with power could not conduct sales unless customers had cash.

The magnitude of the disruptions caused by the storm led federal, state, and local governments to reassess the resiliency of the power grid and telecommunications systems. Two reports, one from the state of Maryland and one from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), provide a look at the disruptions caused by the storm and how the region can better weather the storms of the future.

Grid Resiliency

In July 2012, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed an executive order directing state officials to gather data and talk with experts on improving the resiliency of the state’s electric distribution system. O’Malley cited the derecho as the impetus for the task force, but he also noted that erratic weather patterns and unexpected storms must be considered the norm going forward. To prepare for such an environment, O’Malley asked the task force to evaluate the feasibility of placing electric supply and distribution lines underground and to present other options to improve the resiliency of the electric grid.
 

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