Jack Eisenhauer

Hurricane Sandy reminded us of our vulnerability to widespread power outages caused by massive damage and disruption to the electric power grid. At its peak, 8.6 million customers were without power and another 150,000 lost power from the Nor’easter that hit a week later. Many were without power for more than a week. The dramatic explosion at Con Ed’s substation in Lower Manhattan served up vivid images of how power fails during a big storm.

After the storm, an angry New York Governor Cuomo said, “The utility system we have was designed for a different time and for a different place.” He noted, “We’re going to have to look at a ground-up redesign.”

Would a smart grid have avoided some of the power outages or sped up restoration? Opinions are mixed on that. A storm of Sandy’s magnitude would have still caused extensive physical damage to substations and distribution lines that no smart grid could have fully defended against. But regions to the south of Sandy’s eye that avoided the brunt of the storm surge did benefit from smart grid deployment.

Pepco, which serves the Washington, DC region, used its 425,000 smart meters to automatically signal when they lost power, allowing Pepco to pinpoint the location of the outages. Pepco then used advanced switches to automatically reroute power to where it was needed, fixed the damaged lines, and restored power to all affected customers in just two days. After power was restored, Pepco could “ping” meters to verify service—no need to send a crew or make a phone call.

But Sandy didn’t decide to only target the power grid; no critical infrastructure was spared:

  • Flooding shut down the Hugh L. Carey tunnel, New York subway stations, and PATH stations
  • Several marine terminals in New York Harbor were damaged, the Colonial pipeline was shut down with no place to deliver its product, and some New Jersey refineries were damaged or disrupted
  • Many gas stations could not get fuel deliveries nor could they pump the gas they had
  • Cell phone service for all major carriers was disrupted, partly from flooding and power outages, and customers with service often had no power to charge their phones
  • Hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage from crippled treatment plants in New York flowed into waterways; repairs are expected to take months and cost billions of dollars

How can we mitigate such damage and disruption? Businesses and communities increasingly rely on complex networks of interconnected infrastructures that are controlled by integrated physical and cyber systems. If designed well, they operate efficiently, function during disasters, recover quickly, and address the long-term needs of citizens and the environment. If designed poorly, they are brittle, prone to cascading failures that can ripple across sectors, and fail to address future risks such as climate change.

Making cities smarter by building more resilient urban infrastructures is part of the answer. But why cities, and what are the advantages of a “smart city”? I’ll explore that in my next post.