Power outages along the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy were virtually unavoidable, but the ability of utilities to understand the causes of the outages — and being able to accelerate the time necessary to restore power — could be enhanced greatly by the presence of smart-grid technology, according to an industry expert.

Of the nation's 48,000 distribution substations, less than half have any kind of automation, according to John McDonald, a past president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) and director of technical strategy and policy development at GE Energy's Digital Energy business.

As a result, most utilities only learn of outages after receiving calls from customers, and then have to dispatch workers to the sites — often in difficult conditions and environments — to try to diagnose and fix the problem, McDonald said. When customers cannot call the utility because their phone service does not work or because they have evacuated the area, it is even tougher to understand the power issues, he said.

With smart-grid technology — for example, two-way communications with smart meters, an updated geographic-information system, an outage-management system, and separate distribution-management — utilities would not have to be so reactive; instead, they could proactively identify and isolate issues automatically, allowing problems to be fixed more quickly and allowing better communications with customers, McDonald said.

"If you have the technology, you know where the problem is, what equipment is involved, what crews you need, whether you have the crews you need and when power will be back online," McDonald said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "You have that information, so you can be more proactive with customers."

Having smart-grid technology probably would not enable power to be maintained at all times, because salt-water flooding of electrical equipment is going to damage gear or necessitate that power be turned off, McDonald said. However, after the equipment is properly cleaned and dried, it should work again, he said.

What is needed are incentives for utilities to invest in their power grids to enable this functionality, which can be a challenge during tough economic times, when customers and regulators do not want to incur additional utility costs, McDonald said. But a compelling case can be made for the increased reliability and overall functionality that smart-grid technology offers, particularly after customers have suffered through extended outages, he said.

"If I was the leadership of a utility — especially one located in an area that has had several major storms, where we have been under the microscope of the media — there's no question that I would take advantage of the technology available today," McDonald said.

"Then, what you could tell the public service commission and the customers is two things. One would be that you would know much faster what the extent of a problem is. And, because of that, you would be able to bring people back online much faster."