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updated: 7/14/2011 5:26 AM

ComEd: Smart Grid would have cut storm power outages

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  • ComEd officials say Smart Grid technology would have notified them immediately of power outages during Monday's storm and they could have responded faster.

      ComEd officials say Smart Grid technology would have notified them immediately of power outages during Monday's storm and they could have responded faster.
    Paul Valade

 
 

If the Smart Grid would have been in operation this week, hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses likely would not have been without power for several days. More like just a few minutes, ComEd said Wednesday.

While many customers continue to wait for electricity to be restored since Monday's storm, ComEd is eager to push Senate Bill 1652 that authorizes the Smart Grid, along with rate increases.

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Tabrina Davis, a spokeswoman for ComEd, and Jim Chilsen, a spokesman for the Citizens Utility Board, both discussed whether we would be better off with the new system. Here are their responses to questions from the Daily Herald:

Q. What is the overall condition of ComEd's electrical network in Chicago and the suburbs?

ComEd. ComEd's reliability is ranked in the top quartile among other comparable utilities. Our reliability performance in 2010 was strong, customers experienced 39 percent fewer interruptions and power was restored 34 percent faster than in 1998. However, while our reliability is strong in terms of today's analog utility, it has few digital features and is not a grid that will support customers' growing demands and our future economy. SB1652 is designed to jump start that transformation.

CUB. We all know that ComEd had an awful track record on reliability in the late 1990s. The company has made progress since then. We still get plenty of complaints from consumers in certain areas about frequent outages. There's always a question as to whether ComEd is focusing enough resources on reliability, and state regulators evaluate the company's reliability on a yearly basis. But Illinois still is without strong service/quality standards to make sure ComEd is using the resources it has adequately to reach certain reliability benchmarks, such as how skillfully it trims vegetation around its wires. If we want better reliability, Illinois needs service quality standards.

Q. How would the Smart Grid have helped if it already had been operational in the recent storm outages here? Can you provide specific examples?

ComEd. If Smart Grid technology had been in place, here's how it would have minimized the impact of the storm: ComEd would have known customers were out of power without them having to call us. Technology would have pinpointed outages allowing us to dispatch crews more quickly to restore service. Digital automation would have rerouted power or corrected a problem before an outage occurs meaning fewer customers would have seen outages, and thousands of customers may have never experienced an outage. With the June 21 storm, we estimate that 100,000 customers would have never experienced an outage. With the July 11 storm, we estimate that approximately 175,000 customers would have never experienced an outage.

CUB. CUB is cautiously optimistic that making high-tech upgrades to the power grid could help in at least two ways during the kind of violent storm we witnessed on Monday. First, a lot of people don't know that often ComEd doesn't know there's an outage in a certain area unless it gets calls from customers. A smarter grid would give ComEd detailed information on outages immediately. Plus, it has the potential to isolate outages and prevent them from becoming widespread. Reducing the impact of an outage saves ComEd and consumers money, not to mention it lessens the expensive headaches caused by outages, such as spoiled food. We agree with ComEd that the smart grid, if done right, has the potential to save consumers money and improve reliability. However, ComEd's proposal now on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk, is not just a smart-grid proposal. It also guts key consumer protections and contains some major checkbook issues. For example, it would authorize an unfair and exorbitant return on equity of 10.25 percent. We like the Smart Grid items in this bill, but we can't give ComEd a blank check.

Q. What exactly would the Smart Grid do if a tree is blown down during a storm and knocks down an electrical wire? How would ComEd's response time change? How would the repair time change?

ComEd. If a tree or tree limb were to fall on a three-phase wire, it would result in a fault condition on the circuit. The substation breaker would open, knocking all of the customers on that circuit out of power. With distribution automation, the faulted section of the circuit would be automatically isolated and customers who are not affected by the downed tree or limb would be automatically restored. This means that at least 50 percent of the customers who were knocked out of service would be automatically restored in a matter of minutes. Repair time would not be affected as the damage remains the same.

Q. What would happen to the Smart Grid during high winds, heavy rains or heavy snow storms? How would the Smart Grid continue to operate, compared to the current network?

ComEd. The integration of multiple technologies and the integration of the vast amount of information facilitate a "self-healing" grid, meaning the overall system is more robust and less susceptible to issues with individual elements or devices. Essentially, information and electricity can be automatically routed around a problem area.

Q. If the Smart Grid would have been fully operational before these recent storms, how would it change ComEd's ability to restore power? Would it be faster/slower?

ComEd. Technology would have pinpointed outages allowing us to dispatch crews more quickly to restore service. Digital automation would have rerouted power or corrected a problem before an outage occurs, meaning fewer customers would have seen any outages.

Q. Would buried electrical lines make a difference in such storms? What would be involved if all of ComEd's electrical lines were buried?

ComEd. While buried power lines are less susceptible to storms, they are subject to corrosion and moisture and it takes longer to restore outages when they occur. It is important to note the breathtakingly high costs associated with conversion to an underground distribution system. Construction of new underground distribution facilities and overhead-to-underground conversions cost five to 10 times more than comparable overhead construction, according to a 2009 report from the Edison Electric Institute. And the cost of placing our overhead power lines underground is roughly $100 billion. On a 30-year schedule, according to our conservative estimates, it would mean an additional $40 per month above current residential bills, $90 to $100 per month by 2030 and more than $100 per month by the time installation is completed. You also would need to factor in road closures, congested traffic and limited access to northern Illinois businesses and the cost impact would be even greater. We've conducted a cost-benefit analysis of underground power lines and by comparison, the $2.6 billion that ComEd would invest in upgrades to our electric system -- should Gov. Quinn sign SB1652 -- would mean an average bill increase of $3 per month for residential customers and an estimated 700,000 fewer outages annually. As I stated earlier, our investment would include $1.1 billion for Smart Grid technologies that would enable us to dispatch crews more quickly to restore service.

CUB. Buried electrical lines would definitely make a difference, but it would come with a hefty price tag, and we still would have reliability problems caused by an out-of-date and overused network. It would be less costly to build a smart grid, and it would be a more comprehensive answer to our reliability problems.

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