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How 'self-healing' technology is shortening power outages

Mike Simms Duke.jpg
Ann Thompson
Duke Energy's Manager of Grid Engineering Mike Simms explains a control box. It's the brains at the bottom of a utility pole that tells the smart switch to reroute power if necessary.

Self-healing reroutes electricity around a problem, kind of like a traffic app reroutes you around a car wreck.

When WVXU’s Bill Rinehart first reported “self-healing” technology was helping Duke Energy shorten power outages from hours to minutes, I was intrigued.

So, I went to see the brains of the operation at a secret Tri-State location. The Distribution Control Center is a nondescript building behind layers of security. Duke employees fill a large room looking at monitors and are ready to remotely intervene after car wrecks take out utility poles or tree limbs bring down power lines.

Mike Simms is Duke’s manager of grid engineering for the Midwest.

“This is is the real-time system, so I’ll be careful with it,” he cautions, pointing to the smart switches or "reclosers" at the top of a utility pole and control boxes at the bottom of the pole. It's a system he's been helping develop for more than a decade.

In its simplest terms, smart switches reroute electricity around problems. Duke Spokeswoman Sally Thelen likens it to GPS: “Think of how you travel in your car; you might use an app like Waze or something to get you to your destination. If there’s an accident, typically you’ll be rerouted around that. That’s just how our system is working.”

This Duke video explains self-healing:

Self-Healing Technology

Thelen says Duke has been leading the way on smart grid technology since 2010. In the beginning, countries like Ukraine, South Korea and Malaysia were asking questions.

For 2022, Duke says the technology prevented 403,461 outages and saved 99,706,000 customer minutes. That compares to 165,000 outages saved in 2021 and 20,500,000 minutes.

Self-healing technology operated nearly 100 times during significant storms in June and July 2022. From June 13-14, more than 49,000 extended power outages were avoided, and during July 6-9 more than 30,000 were prevented.

Self-healing has gotten an upgrade with FISR-Fault Isolation Service Restoration. It has the capability to do everything automatically without Duke having to intervene. FISR also can reroute bigger areas. Simms says the brains are in the box at the bottom of the utility pole.

“We’ve got this software system called distribution management systems. That’s really the key component,” Simms says. "That’s where all the intelligence really lies for all this data that comes back in.”

As you can imagine, the technology is not cheap. Duke has spent $100 million on its Ohio grid modernization. Most of that money has come from rate payers. Simms argues it’s worth it because self-healing has saved customers hundreds of millions of minutes since 2010.

Updated: January 25, 2023 at 1:12 PM EST
This story originally published April 4, 2022 and has been updated with year-end 2022 numbers.
Ann Thompson has years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology