Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 5, 2013

Another View: Smart switches, fewer outages

BY THE MACOMB DAILY, Mount Clemens
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---- — A generation ago, a reporter covering Detroit Edison's efforts to restore power to tens of thousands of suburban customers after a severe storm learned about the "smoke test." When crews were reasonably certain they'd repaired lines in a darkened subdivision, he was told, a worker would throw a switch to restore power, then look out across the area for smoke. No smoke, of course, was good.

True? Well, that's what our reporter was told.

Nowadays, DTE and other utilities are installing smarter ways to deal with outages. If we can expect more frequent and more severe storms, we hope they hurry.

An article in the Wall Street Journal describes the effort to ensure that outages affect fewer customers and that power can be restored more quickly. That means smart switches which can be used to divide a circuit into smaller segments, isolating an outage to the smallest area.

The switches can be operated remotely, perhaps automatically. Along with installation of smart meters at residences and businesses, they also provide a quick picture of the utility's grid.

Large-city utilities, the article indicates, are spending tens of millions of dollars, perhaps the low hundred millions, to make the improvements.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., a 170,000-customer city-owned utility has used a $100 million grant to make its system more resilient, including 1,200 smart switches. A recent storm left 35,000 without power. But 42,000 experienced only a brief outage. And the improvements shortened the restoration time for the 35,000 customers.

DTE is installing similar equipment, making improvements to several circuits even as it installs smart meters. Like Chattanooga and other utilities, it's financing the improvements in part with a federal grant.

The costs should be compared with the ultimate "hardening" of an existing grid: burying the lines. That costs far more, and such costs at this point must be paid for by ratepayers.

Power lines in many newer subdivisions have been buried, often as a municipal ordinance requirement.

But in older communities, overhead lines remain and are vulnerable to high wind, ice and falling trees. Right-of-way clearance must remain a high priority.

But if the grid is rebuilt to include more self-healing features, fewer of us will be left in the dark in the next storm.

The Macomb Daily (Mount Clemens)