Alabama Power Finds a New Benefit for Smart Meters: Disaster Recovery

The smart grid promises all sorts of benefits: better management of energy demand, increased cost savings for customers through energy efficiency, and copious data to help manage power consumption. And as the smart grid converges with buildings, vehicles and IT, these benefits will only multiply.

But in an unexpected twist, Birmingham-based utility Alabama Power in April demonstrated that smart grid technologies can also help speed up disaster recovery. For this, the utility received the GridWeek 2011 Leadership Award at this week's annual GridWeek conference in Washington, D.C.

On April 27, Alabama and much of the South was hit by severe storms that spawned tremendous tornadoes across the state. In Alabama Power's service territory alone there were more than 30 tornadoes covering more than 690 miles.

After the storms passed, severe damage was found across the state. More than 400,000 customers were without power. More than 6,000 poles and more than 400 transmission system structures were damaged or destroyed. In addition, more than 300 substations lost power and six substations were either destroyed or suffered significant damage. In the end, the price tag for the utility was more than $200 million, more than the cost to the utility of Hurricanes Katrina, Ivan and Dennis combined, according to an Alabama Power spokesman.

But thanks in part to the 1.4 million smart meters the utility installed for all of its customers by the end of 2010, 99 percent of Alabama Power's customers that could take power had it restored within seven days of the storms.

Although the damage was spread across the state, it was often in very well-defined areas. Thanks to signals from smart meters telling the utility which homes and businesses were without power, a picture was painted very early on of where the most extensive damage could be found. This helped utility crews from approximately 20 states, who'd convened to help with the recovery effort, prioritize their work, according to Michael Sznajderman, an Alabama Power spokesman.

Knowing where the most outages were also gave crews an idea where it was likely nothing would be left to re-connect to power lines, he said. "Those smart meters gave you a very quick indication where hardest hit areas were," Sznajderman said. "The information almost instantaneously helped us."

Not everything worked perfectly on Alabama Power's smart grid and the utility is learning from that, he said. Along with smart meters for all its customers, the utility also installed automated switches and communications equipment on its system. During outages of this magnitude, the switches have nowhere to switch power flow to and in many cases, the communication equipment was knocked out as well, Sznajderman said.

"We did have instances where automation equipment was working but the communication piece failed," he said. "We're looking at the robustness of these components. We learned you can have one piece down and then the rest of it doesn't do any good."

All of Alabama Power's customers had smart meters installed as of the end of 2010. The utility is not releasing costs for the project, but says it expects payback on it within three years. There are other benefits as well. For example, the utility reduced the amount of miles its fleet travels by about 4 million miles a year, according to Sznajderman.

In the future, some of the more standard promises of the smart grid are planned to be rolled out by Alabama Power as well, including direct control of appliances in response to time-of-use pricing and using power stored in electric vehicles parked at homes and businesses to help meet demand during peak load periods.

Photo CC-licensed by Tim Lindeman.