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Investment in grid could bring quicker power return

Apr 21, 2009 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Tom Fowler - Houston Chronicle

A $200 million to $400 million investment in electric grid technology could significantly speed up the time it takes to restore power to the Houston area after a major storm like Hurricane Ike, according to a report being issued today.

The report, compiled by a task force set up by Mayor Bill White and led by local businessman Paul Hobby, also recommends improvements in how the local power grid operator, CenterPoint Energy, communicates outage and recovery information to the public, changes in that company's tree-trimming methods around power lines and local incentives for installing solar panels on homes.

It also sticks by the findings of a study released by the Texas Public Utility Commission in February that said putting all of the system's power lines underground or replacing wooden poles with concrete and steel was too costly and not necessarily the appropriate solution to hurricane threats.

Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast on Sept. 12, cutting power to a little over 2 million people in the CenterPoint service area. It took 19 days for normal service to return to most customers.

CenterPoint issued statements prior to the storm saying recovery could take two weeks or longer, but public frustration with the pace of recovery was high, which helped fuel the mayor's formation of the task force.

The push for 'mid-grid'

About 73 percent of all customers in the CenterPoint system have their local distribution line linked to at least two circuits, meaning they are redundant and can serve as back-up should one circuit fail. But identifying the exact location of an outage and switching customers from one circuit to the other is a time-consuming, manual process. An investment in so-called "mid-grid" technology could automate that process by linking the digital electric meters CenterPoint started installing on homes and businesses this year and central monitoring and control software, according to the report.

The mid-grid would include equipment that knows the status of all distribution lines, remote sensors to identify the cause of disruptions and remote-controlled switches to re-route power during outages.

Not only could such technology have helped restore all power in half the time, the report estimates, recovery time for more than half of all CenterPoint customers could have been just two days, rather than the full week it took to reach the 1-million mark after Ike.

While hundreds of thousands would still have been in the dark for a week or more, many more supermarkets, gas stations, schools and businesses would have been back online much more quickly, said Tom Standish, senior vice president of regulated operations at CenterPoint.

"You would not have the same level of social disruption happen," Standish said.

Group: Stimulus can help

CenterPoint has plans to start putting in mid-grid equipment beginning in 2012, and said it believes it will take about eight years and cost between $200 million and $400 million. The task force recommends starting the process immediately, however, and doing it in about half the time by either using federal stimulus money or getting it rolled into the existing monthly fee all customers pay.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly called the stimulus package, set aside $4.5 billion for smart grid technology projects, particularly "shovel ready" projects that could start quickly. The funds require a 20 percent match from local sources, but the report says the cost savings CenterPoint would get through the system would be enough for it to cover the balance.

The report also suggests CenterPoint change how it manages trees growing along distribution lines. Currently, the company looks at the total height of a tree under a line and prunes trees with branches reaching into power lines in ways that may actually make them less stable during storms, the task force concludes. It also recommends CenterPoint improve its public communication system to better distribute information about outages and expected recovery times. The Texas House passed legislation this session drafted by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, encouraging companies like CenterPoint to make better use of grid management technology to handle hurricane damage and recovery, but it does not dictate how companies should do it.

Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe contributed to this report from Austin.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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