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World Storm-ravaged West Virginia makes the case for a smart grid

Resident Mary Booker inspects the damage after a large tree fell on her home in Charleston, West Virginia Thursday, July 5/2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

For a broad swath of the United States, it's been the week of heat. Battered by storms, stifled by rippling, unremitting bands of warmth, a cross-section of the country has suffered through power outages, leaving millions to swelter without air conditioning or refrigeration, sometimes for days.

While Canadians sweated and fretted over a few hours without lights, some three million U.S. households had yet another reckoning with the continent's aging infrastructure. Across the border in Michigan, more than 300,000 houses and businesses were left in the dark following a storm that also flooded highways; in parts of Ohio, the lights flipped off, then on, then off again amid successive waves of thundershowers; in Washington, politicians' tempers reached a boiling point after days without power, prompting one councillor to demand an investigation of the utility and the mayor to declare he would bury lines to avoid storm-related damage in future.

But the worst-hit place is West Virginia, the rugged, coal-mining heart of Appalachia. Nearly half the capital lost power for days after Friday's derecho, an intense windstorm. State troopers were called in to control crowds trying to buy gas, ice ran out across the state and many residents remain in temporary shelters after more than a week.

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A series of smaller storms over the past week has hampered attempts to restore electricity, while a string of unusually hot days hasn't helped, taxing lines that are functional.

The derecho itself struck with little warning, said Roy Smyth, a 56-year-old miner in denim work clothes, as he stood in the scorching, 40-degree morning sunshine amid fallen cottonwoods in a hillside neighbourhood of Charleston.

Last Friday night, he had ducked into the grocery store to buy ice cream for his wife. By the time he emerged, power lines were down and trees were blocking the road, forcing him to bust out the chainsaw he keeps in his pickup truck to hack his way home.

"It was quick," he said a week later, his electricity still out. "When I came out of the store after 10 minutes, it was gone."

The outages over the past week here point to larger problems with the continent's electricity grid, including aging infrastructure and a lag in putting new technology in place, a deficiency driven in part by the system's complexity and partly by the hefty price tag required to bring the system up to date.

Part of the solution is a more intuitive grid, such as the kind used in Austin, Tex. and Boulder, Colo. – both progressive college towns.

Massoud Amin, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, says the system needs more high-tech sensors that provide data on outages and reroute power to isolate problems.

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"With climate change, we can expect more bad weather occurring," he said. "Having a stronger grid and a smarter grid, we can reduce by an order of magnitude the effect of an outage."

The initial capital investment is substantial – as much as $476-billion nationwide, according to a 2011 estimate by the Electric Power Research Institute – but Mr. Amin argues that the benefits outweigh the costs several times over by operating the system more efficiently, limiting outages and saving on power.

Often, however, it is hard for one state to upgrade without another. Plants here, for instance, provide power for people in Ohio.

"When you talk about a grid, you're looking at something that's national," said Richard Bajura, director of the National Research Centre for Coal and Energy at the University of West Virginia. "Everybody has to upgrade simultaneously."

He does, however, point to smaller-scale solutions, like a $9.4-million super-circuit project in Morgantown, W.Va., that allows the system to direct the flow of power through different points in the grid to avoid downed wires, blown transformers and other problems.

Such a system might have helped Kelley Plymale and her neighbours. Several of the single-storey clapboard houses on her street have been without power all week after a tree branch brought down the wires a few doors down.

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The 50-year-old, who breaths with an oxygen tank, has spent most of her time sitting outside – it's a few degrees cooler than inside her house – or taking cold showers.

"A few days feels like an eternity to me," she said on the porch of her house in a working-class neighbourhood downriver from Charleston. "I lay in my bed at night praying that the lights will come back on."

There are some problems, however, that a super-smart grid can't solve.

West Virginia is covered with craggy, tree-covered mountains that make it hard for crews to reach the many isolated valleys in between.

Heather Chaffee, for instance, lives in what locals call a hollow (pronounced "holler"), between two steep hills, where it's hard enough to get a satellite signal, let alone a repairman. Ms. Chaffee and family – her husband and four children ranging in age from 12 to a baby – have relocated to a shelter to wait while a tree is lifted from the roof of their house and the nearby power lines.

"It takes time," says the upbeat 37-year-old, sitting on the edge of a cot in a side room at a community centre, cradling her two-month-old son, Christian. "They'll get to it."

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Her attitude is typical of the reactions around here: Most people, it seems, are prepared to make the best of the situation.

And they're buoyed by a massive relief effort. Within the first day of the outage, Charleston's authorities brought beds into community centres and schools, transforming them into temporary shelters. The mayor ordered recreation centres' stashes of hot dogs and French fries distributed to the hungry. Red Cross workers have come from as far away as Philadelphia and Buffalo to help out. And locals have come together.

"People have brought us blankets, towels, food," said Jennifer Holley, director of a Charleston community centre, as she co-ordinated relief efforts from the office where she had slept on a mat on the floor the previous five nights. "We're lifeguards and recreation workers, but we've made this a nursing home, a daycare and a shelter."

Just down the hall, a gaggle of kids played in the gym, groups of locals socialized over sandwiches and it was easy to forget there was any problem at all.

Editor's Note: Massoud Amin, is a professor at the University of Minnesota. The university was named incorrectly in the original print version and an earlier online version of this article. This online version has been corrected.

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