26 September 2011—By many counts, Irene was the worst hurricane the U.S. East Coast has had to contend with since 2003. For those inland areas hit hardest by flooding, restoration will likely continue for years. The most widespread impact of the storm, though, was on the power grid. At one point during the onslaught, 5.9 million households between North Carolina and Maine were without electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). But thanks to new visualization software, emergency officials and utilities had the clearest picture of grid damage ever available, which helped them to prioritize repairs.
Outages of this size aren’t just about keeping your kids entertained without electronics. The worst impacts of power loss are on transportation systems, essential communications, and medical facilities. One of the systems that responded to these high-need areas was VERDE, or Visualizing Energy Resources Dynamically on Earth, developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee.
Using a simple Google Earth interface, VERDE accumulates data from its partnering utilities, synthesizing the information into a comprehensive bird’s-eye view of transmission-line status. For those with direct access to the feed—including utilities and the DOE—the maps show transmission lines snaking across topological landscapes, with shades of green and yellow reflecting the various capacities. Outages in the distribution grid pop off the screen as red-and-white flashing lines projecting skyward from the ground, along with layers of information crucial to disaster response, including weather patterns, flooding, and population.
The visualization program was built after the major Northeast blackout in August 2003, when emergency operations centers got their information secondhand from a panel of eight television screens—one for each major network. "Nobody even knew what was going on the next utility over," says Budhendra Bhaduri, leader of the Geographic Information Science and Technology group at Oak Ridge, which develops data-mining-based information systems.
VERDE was a desperately needed improvement on that system, but it presented its own obstacles. Because it is based on proprietary information received from participating utility companies, VERDE only may be used by the DOE and those utilities. So a similar system called EARSS (for Energy Awareness and Resiliency Streaming Service), which began operating in 2010, was created to widen the reach of the visualization tool, says Steven Fernandez, a research scientist for Oak Ridge.
EARSS has the same format as VERDE, but it is based on information pulled from public resources. During Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies could watch live feeds from EARSS on the Web. "This is sort of unprecedented," says Bhaduri. "Only in recent years have we been able to take advantage of cyberinfrastructure to share information across partners." But just in case those online feeds were interrupted, Oak Ridge also used the EARSS feed to compile several reports each day that summarized the state of the grid for response teams. The reports included screenshots of the live feed, showing counties color coded by population or the percentage of customers without power, and offering projections of when service would be restored.
Information culled from EARSS was distributed to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, FEMA, and the U.S. Northern Command. Those groups could easily see how power outages cascaded from the original areas of damage, following patterns that weren’t always predicted by utilities’ models, says Fernandez, who acted as the primary liaison between Oak Ridge and those agencies. Working from up-to-date information, responders on the ground could deliver emergency generators and ice where they were most needed.
The program was also used by utilities during their restoration efforts. So many utilities were affected by Irene that the companies had to share repair crews, which slowly worked their way up the East Coast. Throughout the restoration, VERDE and EARSS kept working, tracking the progress of repairs. EARSS was up and running three days before Irene’s landfall in the Carolinas, and it was used continuously until about 90 percent of power had been restored, Fernandez says.
Utility customers were "in an uproar—everybody’s always in an uproar when they lose power," says Patrick Willging of the DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. "But the restoration itself was ahead of the national average for an event of this magnitude, considering the area that was impacted."
With the 2011 hurricane season behind them, the developers of VERDE and EARSS plan to add more layers of information to the visualizations. Oak Ridge is currently working to expand its relationship with utilities; the more companies that choose to share their information, the more comprehensive the map will be. The program will also work to refine its user experience, says Fernandez, improving things like color legends so that "folks who are already highly stressed, in a dynamic situation, won’t have to spend time figuring out what chartreuse versus yellow means."
In the long run, though, the benefit of EARSS and VERDE may be their ability to demonstrate to utilities and the U.S. government the failings of its own electricity infrastructure and help rebuild it as time goes on. "Hopefully," says Fernandez, "some of the technology we’re applying in emergency response will be applied to the long-term electrical grid planning effort."