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Experts say money, tech could ease storm power outages

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A tree is down on 5th St. NE in Minneapolis.
A tree is down in Minneapolis on Tuesday night. A powerful line of severe thunderstorms has knocked out power to tens of thousands of people.
Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune via AP

Storms that swept through Minnesota Tuesday night left tens of thousands of residents without power. Yet some experts say it's possible to prevent widespread outages caused by storms.  

At the height of the storm, more than 250,000 Xcel Energy customers lost power. Troy Browen, director of Xcel's control centers and trouble operations, said a typical storm will knock out power to between 80,000 and 150,000 customers.

Browen said the outages are often caused by high winds that knock over transmission poles or push trees and limbs onto power lines. He said Xcel regularly cuts away parts of trees near the lines to help prevent future damage.  

Burying power lines underground eliminates the hazards caused by falling limbs. However, Xcel officials say underground lines are still susceptible to damage. And when they are damaged, those lines often take longer to fix because the cause of the failure is harder to find.

Browen said Xcel is working with the Electric Power Research Institute in North Carolina to find other ways to reduce the number of outages caused by storms.

"They call it grid resiliency. There are different things we can do to help bolster our system," said Browen. "Those are three- to five-year plans. And we are working on those."

"Grid resiliency" is a very familiar phrase to Dr. Massoud Amin. 

"At the risk of sounding arrogant, I created those programs from 1998 to 2003," said Amin.

Amin is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota. Before he came to the U of M, Amin worked at the Electric Power Research Institute, where he was at the leading edge of the creation of smart grid technology. 

The smart grid is a system that is less vulnerable to widespread power outages. It uses computerized sensors to detect problems and avoid disruptions. And the smart grid can also easily integrate power from alternative sources like solar panels and windmills. 

While this may sound like something out of science fiction, Amin said the technology is already available.

"This is not a question of the technology. Not a question of anything else. It's a question of leadership," said Amin.

Amin said public and private leadership at the local and national level is needed to not only research and spend money on new technology, but to pay for improvements to the crumbling existing electric grid. He said nationwide, the number of power outages per year has increased significantly over the last several decades. Amin blames an increase in severe storms and a lack of maintenance of electrical infrastructure.

It will not be cheap to make the upgrades. Amin said improvements to the nation's electrical infrastructure are estimated to cost in the tens of billions of dollars, but the status quo is more expensive. 

"Electricity underpins our economic growth; underpins our GDP and cost of outages, on average cost our economy in the United States $150 billion a year," said Amin.