Investment in grid could bring quicker
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
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
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
"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.