The Carolinas have not been hit by a hurricane so far this year, but researchers at N.C. State University are predicting a normal year with five to seven big storms in the Atlantic.
After last year's disasters with hurricanes Florence and Michael, Duke Energy officials say they're ready for whatever comes this way - thanks to a new technology-filled control center that opened last year.
The center opened in February 2018 in a windowless building at University Research Park in northeast Charlotte. Its walls are reinforced to withstand high winds. And there's backup power so it can remain online during a major storm. Workers here track downed power lines and power outages. And they send out repair crews in most of western and central North Carolina, including the Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham areas.
About 22 people are on duty at any given time. That goes up to 36 when big storms hit, said Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks.
"This facility has been very busy over the last year, because we had Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael that came through here, as well as two major storms in the service area," Brooks said during a tour for reporters Wednesday.
Each operator sits at a workstation with eight screens displaying information about outages, power grid maps and the status of repair crews. A big screen at one end of the room notes how many outages are being tracked.
In the past, dispatching repair crews was a largely manual process. Phone calls would alert Duke of trouble. Operators would call or radio instructions to crews in the field.
Now, everyone is connected to a network with outage and repair details. And sometimes crews aren't needed at all.
"Increasingly, outage restoration is becoming automated and intelligent," Brooks said. "These operators have the ability to remotely restore power using the click of a mouse in some areas that we have automated switching capabilities. But increasingly, we're also using smart, self-healing technologies across our grid."
That means the network itself can automatically detect and reroute power around an outage.
"It's a lot like the GPS in your car. If you're driving along and your GPS says there's an accident ahead, we're gonna re-route you around it. The power grid can do the same thing with this technology," he said.
So, for example, an outage that might have affected 2,000 people instead would affect only 400 or 500, said Brooks.
"If you've experienced an outage recently and within a minute or two your power came back on, it was probably some form of self-healing technology that's managed out of this facility," he said.
Managing Storm Repairs
During Hurricane Florence last September, Brooks says the technology helped avoid extended outages for thousands of customers.
"Having more intelligent technology helps these operators manage more outages at one time and be able to restore power faster than we can when it was a very manual process," Brooks said.
And, he added, managing the power grid is a lot more complicated than it once was, in part because power increasingly flows two ways, not just sending power to customers, but receiving power from rooftop solar panels or storage batteries.
The operations center is more sophisticated than Duke's previous control centers, like the one near Charlotte Douglas International Airport that this one replaced. Operators have access to far more information, thanks to monitoring devices on power lines and other equipment.
This week's media tour comes as Duke tries to build a new case for a rate increase to pay for grid improvements like these. A year ago, North Carolina regulators rejected a proposed 10% hike that called for $7.8 billion of grid improvements.
"This is a growing service area, and energy demands are increasing, and not only the number of people, but the way people want to use energy is changing," said Brooks.
"So we want to give them more tools and more technology. But we have to build our back offices and our systems to be able to support that, as well, and this facility is an example of that," Brooks said.
Brooks said Duke plans to present the N.C. Utilities Commission with a new three-year grid modernization plan as part of another rate increase request in the coming months.