THE MAGAZINE

Keeping the Lights On

By Teresa Anderson

Another policy recommendation involved special-needs customers. The task force found that utilities maintain lists of medically vulnerable customers so that these customers can be informed of planned outages and impending weather issues. However, the utilities have been reluctant to share these lists with emergency management officials due to privacy concerns. Because emergency management agencies could benefit from knowing which homes house vulnerable citizens, the task force recommended getting permission from these citizens to share their information.

The report also recommended enhanced information sharing among utilities and state and local governments. For example, the task force noted that smart meters, which allow two-way communication between individual electric meters and the utility, could provide data. Used primarily for billing, the meters also provide accurate information on outages. The data these meters collect could be shared with government agencies, obviating the need for agencies to keep duplicate records.

Hardening the grid

Beyond policy changes, two major actions recommended by the task force were to place vulnerable lines underground and to improve tree-trimming programs.

The information gathered after the derecho showed that the underground lines lost power much less frequently than overhead lines. However, placing electric lines underground is expensive, costing from five to 10 times what an overhead line costs. Therefore, the task force recommended that only the highest-risk lines should be moved underground.
The highest-risk lines are those feeding electricity to the substations; these were more frequently damaged as compared to regular distribution lines that transmit electricity from the substations to homes and businesses. While there are relatively few of these supply lines, the task force found that they accounted for almost 20 percent of the system outages. The task force noted that “a utility can prevent more customer outages per circuit mile by undergrounding substation lines than any other type of line.”
 

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