The Smart Grid: ‘A Logistical Marvel’

A massive ice storm hit Vermont at the end of December. Thousands of Vermonters lost power. The deployment of Vermont’s federally funded smart grid, which uses state-of-the art technology to generate real-time outage information, provided an essential tool to help utilities get the electricity back up and running.

Ice Storm Vermont

The Vermont Electric Cooperative, which has nearly all of its customers equipped with smart meters, said the ice storm that hit the state on Dec. 22 caused massive outages.  The Johnson, Vt.-based utility tapped federal stimulus funds to finish installing smart meters throughout its service area. The new smart meters, which relay information to the utilities through a “smart grid” helped Vermont Electric Cooperative deploy crews effectively, said Liz Gamache, the utility’s manager of corporate services. “This is invaluable for safety -- and it saves time,” she said, calling the smart grid a “logistical marvel.”

In 2009, the federal stimulus program invested nearly $69 million in Vermont, helping make it the first state to have near-universal smart meters.  Vermont's utilities provided a match of $69 million, creating total investment of $138 million. Combined, this was one of the largest single infrastructure projects in the modern history of Vermont.

Vermont Electric Cooperative typically has about 50 line workers. In the wake of the December storm, however, utilities throughout the region loaned 500 more line workers through mutual aid agreements to help restore power to Vermonters.  “The smart grid plays an important role in how we deploy this workforce,” Gamache said.

A Revolutionary Change

The northwestern part of Vermont was hardest hit during the storm. “It was a big event. Not quite as bad as Irene, but it was definitely in that neighborhood. Ice is really debilitating for us,” said Brian Otley, vice president of operations of Colchester, Vt.-based Green Mountain Power Corp.

Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, said the introduction of the smart grid has revolutionized the way utilities determine where power has been lost. “In the old days, we did a lot of driving around looking for porch lights,” said Otley. “In terms of the speed and the accuracy, this gives us a lot more intelligence.”

The smart meter, he explained, is a device installed on homes which measure electric usage with two-way signals. “It can talk to us, saying, ‘I’m about to lose power, I’m going out.’ When power is restored, it also notifies us,” he said. 

The smart grid “allows us to size up the damage in a more point-pointed way. That saves time, lowers the cost to restore power, and keeps our crews safer,” Otley said. 

Green Mountain Power finished its deployment of the smart grid in early 2013. “It is already providing pretty strong benefits and it is only going to get better going forward,” he said.

“From a utility standpoint, it’s a big injection of technology into a system that hasn’t had it historically. It’s a great investment,” Otley said.