Getting a handle on overall grid reliability and outage trends for the entire U.S. is challenging. Despite generally high reliability numbers, power outages are occurring more frequently with estimates noting that outages cost the U.S. economy $150 billion per year. They’re also affecting more people and lasting longer than just a decade ago. Generally speaking, this is due to a combination of underinvestment in the grid over the past quarter century, continually increasing demand for electricity among businesses and consumers, and the occurrence of more severe storms.

When it comes to electricity, the expectations of consumers and businesses for constant service and reliability are running higher than ever. But the fact is that below the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) communication network and substation level, many utilities have little or no information about when individual residential customers and small businesses are out of power. By and large, utilities still rely on customer calls to pinpoint outages. And when it comes to restoration, many utilities have limited technology tools (if any) to verify that power has been restored at individual customer premises.

Certainly hardening the grid and making it more resilient is a long-term, multifaceted technical and economic challenge. However in the nearer term, there are less costly and proven steps utilities can take to address important parts of this growing challenge. One of the key opportunities is to leverage the capabilities of a smart meter system to increase system reliability, improve outage response and enhance customer satisfaction.

In its May 2013 report, “Improving Electric Grid Reliability and Resilience,” the Gridwise Alliance, a nationwide consortium of electric utilities, grid operators, smart grid technology companies, consultants and academic institutions, made specific recommendations in five areas to harden the grid and improve outage response. Key among the recommendations was utilizing the outage detection and monitoring capabilities of advanced metering infrastructure to facilitate power restoration and improve communication to customers.

Currently, just over 40 percent of the 150 million electricity meters in the U.S. are “smart,” meaning they have two-way communication to the utility via an installed communications network, advanced monitoring capabilities, as well as the ability to communicate with consumers and devices within the home. By 2015, over 50 percent of meters will be smart and the market will near saturation by the end of the decade. Though the greatest focus of these systems thus far has been on customer billing and related services, this grid intelligence network will prove a hugely valuable asset in improving reliability and outage response.
In addition to measuring consumption, smart meters also act as sensors that represent the equivalent of “nerve endings” for the grid. They can be used to identify potential reliability problems before they become an outage; quickly detect and communicate the scope of the outage, freeing the utility from reliance on customer calls to figure out exactly what’s going on. Sensor data can help optimize the dispatch and management of field resources to speed restoration times and help the utility provide customers with better information, such as positive acknowledgement to customers that the utility knows about the outage and deliver an accurate estimation of when power will be restored.

The ability of a smart meter to immediately signal an outage at the customer premise, as well as its ability to automatically verify when power is restored, adds an entirely new data stream and source of insight for outage management and restoration efforts. These capabilities, combined with voltage monitoring and the ability to “ping” meters over the network and from the field, provides utilities with new tools that have enabled a small, but growing number of utilities to transform outage response business processes. This in turn has helped them achieve significant improvements in outage detection and restoration times, improve reliability performance metrics and create a better customer experience.

Advanced metering infrastructure is able to improve reliability and outage management both in large-scale, storm-related outages as well as much smaller and localized or “nested” outages that occur for various reasons on the grid every day. And the data from these meters enhances both the utility’s ability to detect and localize the outage, but also speed restoration.

With regulatory and consumer attention focused on hardening the grid, utilities have a significant opportunity to leverage smart meter technology to:

  •  identify potential reliability problems before they become outages;
  • detect and localize outages much more quickly;
  • manage field services crews more efficiently to accelerate restoration; and
  • improve customer satisfaction by providing more accurate and timely information.

Those innovative utilities that have taken the initial steps on this path are already seeing compelling results at low incremental cost in addressing a challenge that impacts both the economy and people’s everyday lives every day: keeping the lights on.

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Tim Wolf
Tim Wolf is director for marketing at Itron, where he is responsible for marketing and communications for Itron’s global electricity and Smart Grid businesses. He is a regular presenter at industry conferences and writer in the industry trade press.