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Let's build the power grid of the future
Technology can help avoid outages
Houston Chronicle

Sept. 28, 2008 - Houston - The following essay was written for the Houston Chronicle by Tom Standish, CenterPoint Energy Senior VP and Group President of Regulated Operations

Even before we’ve restored all power following Hurricane Ike, discussions about how to restore power more quickly after the next storm have already begun.

Some are calling for significant investments to “harden” the electric system by building new transmission towers and poles. Others are criticizing the Public Utility Commission for its decision to require a cost/benefit analysis before adopting new rules that could cost Houston-area electric customers several billion dollars.

We understand that everyone wants power back on quickly following a natural disaster, but the experience of Hurricane Ike validates the PUC’s caution and points to a better approach.  We believe investments in new technology, instead of more steel and concrete, will improve power restoration times and provide conservation, environmental and consumer benefits.

Hardening the electric grid seems straightforward. Steel and concrete towers and underground power lines are less susceptible to wind damage than traditional wood poles making hurricane restoration faster.

Yet Hurricane Ike tells a different story.  We build our electric infrastructure to meet or exceed National Electrical Safety Code standards and place our substations at or above 100-year flood plains. 100 percent of our concrete and steel transmission structures were standing after Ike and 99.2 percent of our wood structures remained standing.  The same was true for the wooden poles in backyards: 99.5 percent were undamaged.

We restored power to over 1.5 million (75 percent) of our customers in the first 10 days. Hardening our poles to protect against wind damage would have provided very little additional benefit.

If our infrastructure held up so well, why so many outages? Uprooted trees, broken limbs and other flying debris made contact with power lines, bringing some poles and lines down, damaging transformers and other electrical equipment. Our proactive tree trimming helps prevent limbs from growing into power lines but it does nothing to keep whole trees from falling into power lines after hurricanes.

Burying lines can help protect against wind damage.  Approximately 50 percent of our residential customers are served through underground lines but they have drawbacks too.  As we saw during Tropical Storm Allison, underground facilities are susceptible to flooding and take longer to repair when there’s a problem.

Underground service is standard in new communities, but as the Houston Chronicle itself noted in an editorial, the cost of converting communities to underground service could cost tens of billions of dollars and require significant disruption as backyards and streets are excavated. Individuals would need to reconfigure homes and businesses to accept underground service while telephone and cable companies that share our poles would need to bury their cables, significantly raising their cost of service too. When the time and cost are calculated, companies and regulators across the country have routinely concluded that the costs to retrofit far exceed the benefits.

We believe there’s a better solution: investment in automated metering and “intelligent grid” technologies, which exist today and are being tested in our service area to quickly detect and isolate specific areas of trouble.

While an intelligent grid can’t clear a fallen tree or pick up a fallen pole, it can identify and isolate trouble areas, allowing the electric grid to automatically reroute power and “self heal,” thereby restoring power to more customers more quickly.

We understand the critical role electricity plays.

As we consider the future of electric delivery, we think it’s important to review all our options in order to make the best, most cost effective decision. But as we do, let’s not limit ourselves to hardening the electric grid of the past. Let’s seize this opportunity to begin building the electric grid of the future.

Tom Standish,
Senior VP and Group President of Regulated Operations
CenterPoint Energy