BNL’s Hamilton helps utilities prepare for storm outages

BNL’s Hamilton helps utilities prepare for storm outages

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Ominous forecasts start a cascade of reactions, from a race through the supermarket for canned goods and water to trips to the hardware store for batteries and flashlights to a rush to the gas station to fill up before the possibility of an interruption in the supply line.

Stephanie Hamilton is determined to turn predictions of an approaching storm into a new kind of action plan for utilities.

A Smarter Grid R&D Manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Hamilton recently received a $336,000 grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to work with two utilities in upstate New York, Orange and Rockland Utilities and Central Hudson Gas and Electric. She would like to help these utilities gain a better understanding of how to interpret and use weather data to develop a plan for approaching storms.

The elements of new information in the BNL study will include streaming radar that offers forecasts in a range of 1.5 kilometers.

“What this will tell them is where we think the storm is going to be, the volume of the precipitation and how long that might continue,” Hamilton said.

That kind of specific knowledge of a storm will aid companies in understanding where to put reserves in place by reaching out to other companies through a mutual aid assistance program in states that might not be as affected by a storm.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, for example, Orange and Rockland Utilities had over 4,000 workers come to help restore power. Wisconsin Gas and Electric sent crews to Long Island to aid in the storm recovery.

Hamilton and her colleagues are working on building a toolkit that will help utility personnel use weather information they currently don’t have.

“Our expectation is that by having the information and new tools,” these companies will be able to understand “how severe weather will impact their systems.”

— Stephanie Hamilton

Hamilton said she herself isn’t the weather expert: she is relying on the meteorological expertise of BNL scientists Michael Jensen and Scott Giangrande. She is hoping to bring together the skills at understanding severe atmospheric conditions with an awareness of the vulnerable points on an electric grid.

Hamilton’s former supervisor, Gerald Stokes, who is now a visiting professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, praised her work and her approach. Hamilton is “well regarded in the smart grid and utility community and is seen as one of the pioneers in that area,” he said.

The BNL study is one of seven such efforts NYSERDA is sponsoring with a total of $3.3 million to help utilities prepare for and react to severe weather events.

“As we continue to witness the impacts of extreme weather, it is more important than ever to invest in making our energy infrastructure stronger and smarter,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

Hamilton hopes this is among the first steps in what could be a lengthy and productive local analysis of the vulnerabilities of the system to various disruptions. Some utility poles might be in areas where the ground becomes saturated with only a few inches of rain, depending on the local conditions and the ability of the vegetation in the area to soak up any accumulations.

When this project ends, the BNL team will try to demonstrate the tool at the utility with their existing procedures to validate the model and see how it can be used, she said.

Down the road, the utilities could integrate this kind of analysis with a pole-by-pole understanding of vulnerabilities to specific weather conditions.

The utilities have a financial incentive to bring systems damaged by a storm back online. Hamilton said a one hour reduction in storm response could save Orange and Rockland Utilities about $100,000 to $200,000.

A resident of Manorville, Hamilton lives with her partner John York, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an IT expert working with TIAA-CREF in New Jersey as a business analyst for computing systems. Hamilton has enjoyed her three and a half years at BNL after growing up in south Georgia and spending much of her career in western states, including California, Washington and Wyoming.

As for her work, she feels at home at BNL.

“This is really a culmination of all the things I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said. She relishes the opportunity to “move the industry ahead. Making [utilities] more reliable and resilient is the key to our economy.”