FirstEnergy to spend $2.8B to install smart-grid technology, control outages

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A decade after failures by FirstEnergy Corp. led to a historic blackout across eight states, the company is playing a lead role in transforming the electric grid.

The company announced plans Tuesday to spend $2.8 billion to revamp four of its Ohio and Pennsylvania utilities with “smart grid” technology. Remote sensors installed with new power lines and transmission stations will allow it to spot outages in real time and limit them.

When the four-year project is completed, the company will look to expand upgrades across Pennsylvania, spokesman Mark Durbin said.

“I think this is great news. I think it's the type of leadership we're looking for,” said Gregory F. Reed, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Power & Energy Initiative. “Seeing utilities like FirstEnergy at this point start to make a deployment, that makes me every optimistic.”

The technology-integrated country is putting unprecedented stress and demand on the aging electric grid. It has to have these types of improvements to stay reliable in the face of new threats, Reed said.

The 2003 blackout sparked an uproar over the fitness of the grid and brought promises of technology to help limit the impact of outages. It started as a local power failure near Cleveland that cascaded up the East Coast and into Canada.

But the country has only inched toward progress over that time because it takes 10 to 15 years for utility companies to prove and deploy new technology, Reed said.

Now it has a critical period in which it must adapt to fight growing threats, including terrorist hackers and climate change's storms, fires and droughts, Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary at the Department of Energy, said during a speech Monday in Oakland.

PJM Interconnection, the Valley Forge company that oversees the grid from the Mid-Atlantic States to Chicago, has planned $24 billion in upgrades since 2000. Its president, Terry Boston, on Oct. 28 signed a declaration with leaders from the world's 16 largest grid operators saying they all need to invest even more, and asking governments to help them raise money and acquire rights of way faster.

This is Akron-based FirstEnergy's second recent investment in its system. It announced plans in May 2012 to spend $700 million to $900 million on new high-voltage transmission lines in Pennsylvania and four other states. That was done largely under PJM oversight to ensure the region wouldn't become more vulnerable to outages as FirstEnergy closed nine power plants in four states.

The expanded investment announced Tuesday will replace decades-old equipment and help the company connect that large-scale transmission system with its local distribution system, officials said. The equipment it's replacing is on average more than 40 years old.

Using smart technology will help limit outages and waste, Durbin said. The sensors it plans to use will help it pinpoint obstructions in the system, steer power around it to limit the impact of outages and quickly mobilize repair crews. It'll use sensors at transmission stations to get maintenance alerts instead of relying on having workers do potentially unnecessary precautionary checks, Durbin said.

The company has spent billions to upgrade its power plants with environmental controls, and it can transition its capital to upgrading its grid, Durbin said. The company wants to target that spending on areas with the potential for big shale gas development, especially the parts of Ohio that have a mix of gas that needs big processing plants, he added.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or

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