Blackout 10 years on: How 'smart grids' help blackout-proof the power game

Ten years ago today, the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada went black in a colossal power outage that affected 50 million people. In the decade since, utilities have explored scores of creative ways to transform the way we consume electricity.

Next power outage, you may be able to use your electric car to keep the house lights on

The 2003 blackout in Canada and the U.S. spurred a look at more efficient uses of power. (iStock)

Ten years ago today, the Eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada went black in a colossal power outage that affected 50 million people.

In the decade since, power producers across Canada, and particularly in Ontario, have explored ways to not only make the electrical grid more reliable but transform the way we consume power in the future.

Experts say that before too long it's conceivable that public utilities will turn on our appliances for us and we'll be using our electric cars to power our homes, like giant batteries, should an outage occur.

"Smart grids have accelerated as a concept as computing technology has become cheaper and telecommunications technology has become cheaper," says Alex Bettencourt, managing director of Smart Grid Canada, a non-profit that promotes modern and efficient power generation. "Customers' expectations are also rising."

The smart grid refers to an electricity system that collects real-time data on supply and demand to make the entire grid more efficient and less prone to failure.

In capturing this data, utilities are also better able to integrate renewable sources such as wind and solar into the energy mix, and even store excess power.

The 2003 blackout, by the numbers

4:11 p.m. ET Time of blackout

9 seconds Time it took for the grid to collapse

300 megawatts One report says a surge of 300 megawatts suddenly moved east on the grid, then reversed direction and moved west, adding to the amount on the grid, for a total of 500 megawatts.

24,086 square kilometres Total area affected by blackout

50,000,000 Number of people affected in the United States and Canada

500 Estimated number of people who spent the night at Pearson Airport in Toronto during the blackout

400 Estimated number of flights cancelled in North America on Aug. 15

50 to 60 years Average age of the North American transmission equipment

$50 - $100 billion Estimated cost of modernizing the North American power grid

100 Number of power plants shut down

22 Number of nuclear power plants shut down

Many jurisdictions currently have smart meters, which provide utilities with up-to-the-minute information on energy use in homes and businesses.

A more recent innovation is the smart thermostat, such as those offered through Ontario's Peaksaver Plus plan.

By signing up for the program, customers give their local utility permission to adjust the temperature in their homes by one or two degrees in order to offset demand on the system.

"Most participants wouldn't notice any impact on their comfort, and the province sees a benefit from the collective actions," says Mary Bernard, a spokesperson for the Ontario Power Authority.

Bettencourt also points to the use of internet-enabled thermostats, produced by companies such as Honeywell and Nest Labs, that allow consumers to control their home temperature via their smartphones.

Shifting the load

One of the buzzwords in the power industry today is "load-shifting," which means moving non-time-specific energy use – like running the dishwasher – to off-peak hours.

Pretty soon, it's likely that homes will be outfitted with air conditioners, washing machines and even swimming-pool pumps that can be triggered by local utilities to run when demand is low.

"The smart-appliance wave is something that is about to wash up on our shore," says Edward Arlitt, a strategic analyst at the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), which monitors Ontario's power use.

At the moment, Arlitt says, "there is a huge effort to come up with standardized communication protocols, so all these appliances can talk to one another."

In the interest of getting the most out of the power they produce, utilities are also increasingly looking at ways to store excess energy, such as that produced by wind turbines, which is often more available at night, when demand is low.

Bettencourt says that one of the storage concepts currently being explored is compressed air, in which excess energy from wind turbines is used to run compressors and store the compressed air either underground or deep underwater during periods of low demand. This air is then released and used to help power gas turbines during peak times.

New Brunswick Power is currently working with Siemens Canada on storing excess energy in both commercial and residential water heaters.

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"These are programs that aren't developed yet, but in the concept mode," says John Cooper, a smart grid management consultant with Siemens Canada.

Another promising storage vessel is the electric car.

Working with Nissan Canada, Ontario utility Powerstream has shown that the lithium-ion battery in the Nissan Leaf electric car could hold enough juice to power a typical Canadian household for an entire day in the event of a blackout.

"Whether it's an electrical vehicle or a dedicated battery system, we see the home of the future as being quite capable of having residential storage as part of its supply option," says John Mulrooney, the director of smart grid technologies for Powerstream, which is jointly owned by the Ontario municipalities of Barrie, Markham and Vaughan.

The beauty of micro-grids

One offshoot of the smart grid idea is what's known as a "micro-grid," which is a smaller, self-contained energy system with local power sources that contributes to a larger grid but can become self-sufficient in the event of a system-wide failure.

During Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, one-third of Manhattan lost power. But the lights in a 20-storey apartment building in Greenwich Village stayed on for five days, because the building was powered by a micro-grid with its own natural gas and solar energy sources. 

"What makes the micro-grid unique is that it has all the benefits of the grid, but if there's ever a situation where you want to separate from the grid, then you have that ability," says Mulrooney, who notes that Powerstream is looking at how to implement micro-grids into its own system.

Bettencourt at Smart Grid Canada says that the establishment of the smart grid is largely due to a shift in attitude among the utilities.

In the past, he says, "They were engineering firms that made electricity and transported electricity.

"We're seeing that they're making that change to be more, 'How can we engage the customers? What do they want? How do they want us to serve them?'"