Monday, 30 July 2012 13:19
July 30, 2012
Utility companies are tasked, first and foremost, with maintaining stability in the nation's most basic services, from water and gas systems to the extensive American power grid. Particularly for electricity, this entails a number of challenges ranging from balancing generation and consumption to ensuring that power lines reach everywhere they are needed.
Recently, though, the countless storms that have rocked the country have become the bane of the power industry, sometimes tearing down power lines across entire regions and leaving millions in the dark. In the coming years, however, The New York Times reports that utilities might be able to apply technologies as diverse as consumer electronics and military surveillance to help it face this growing challenge.
Losing grip on power losses
The problem with utilities' response to power outages was probably highlighted most dramatically last October when a surprise snowstorm swept through the Northeast after an unusually mild fall. Piling snow on trees still covered in foliage led to countless branches snapping under the weight, bringing down power lines around the region.
The New York Times reported that Connecticut ended up being the worst hit state, with more than 2 million losing power immediately after the storm and around a half million customers of utility Connecticut Light and Power left in the dark a week later.
The outages themselves were attributed mainly to an unusual confluence of events, but the Times notes that nearby Norwich Public Utilities was able to fix all of its outages within around an hour, pointing to problems specifically for the big utilities.
Knowing what to fix
The big problem, the Times explains, is that utilities are often at a loss as to what repairs are needed in what areas. After one recent storm that struck the Northeast in June, crews were brought in from as far away as Oklahoma, but were arriving before utilities had a clear picture of the damage and the work that needed to be done.
While many electric companies have been moving toward adopting new smart grid technologies as a means of identifying and rapidly addressing outages, implementation of these systems remains limited and their benefits can be negated by the massive damage inflicted by major storms.
To help ease these difficulties, nonprofit group the Electric Power Research Institute has begun developing two new tools for utilities adapted from technologies taken from both the commercial and the military sector.
First, the group created an iPad app called Field Force Data Visualization, which ground crews can use to survey downed power lines and damaged equipment. Using GPS to track where the crews are, the app will be able to bring up schematics for equipment so workers can pick out specifically which components need replacement.
Second, the EPRI has begun work on adapting some of the reconnaissance drones used by the U.S. military as a means of providing an aerial overview of damaged portions of an electric grid. Though current test drones are operating at around 8,000 feet, a new series of "mini-helicopters" could provide a lower-altitude assessment.
Questions about proposed solution
The Associated Press reports that difficulties with power outages following major storms are unlikely to go away, given excessive costs of alternative power grid designs, such as buried cables. Despite this, many Americans might prove hesitant to support extensive use of technologies like military drones in domestic airspace.
However, U.S. News and World Report notes that the Federal Aviation Administration has already authorized 63 drone launch sites in the U.S., with organizations ranging from the Border and Customs Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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