In Irene's Wake, Calls for a Better Power Grid

Experts say widespread outages strengthen the case for improving transmission systems

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One week after Hurricane Irene hit the northeast, hundreds of thousands of electric customers remain without power, and public anger is growing. Well, what do you expect from a hurricane?

Ezra Klein Brad Plumer and others say massive outages are not inevitable, and that preventing such widespread disruption would be a primary benefit of an improved national power grid.

ComEd figures a smarter grid would’ve led to 175,000 fewer people without power after just one severe July thunderstorm in Illinois. Granted, ComEd isn’t a disinterested player here — the utility is currently lobbying for local rate increases to finance smart-grid upgrades — but many other companies and analysts are saying the same thing.
So how much would this all cost? A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that implementing smart-grid technology nationwide could cost, at the high end, $476 billion over 20 years. (The 2009 stimulus poured $4.5 billion into a handful of smart-grid pilot projects around the country.) Amin, for his part, calculates that doing so would reduce the cost of blackouts by at least $49 billion per year. A smart grid obviously can’t prevent all power outages, especially in a violent hurricane, but it can reduce the damage considerably.

There could be a lot more discussion about improvements to the grid if political officials in the northeast follow through with their threats to investigate public utilities and their preparedness for storms.

They will could soon have even more fodder for debate: Tropical Storm Lee has arrived.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.