When your power goes out, it’s Justin Huntley’s job to figure out how to restore it as quickly as possible.
Huntley is an operator at Duke Energy’s Charlotte Distribution Control Center, where a team of about 90 people communicates at all hours between customers at home or work and technicians in the field.
Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based utility that serves 8.2 million customers across six states, gave The Charlotte Observer and other media outlets a tour of its control center in the University area on Wednesday. The visit came as the company is preparing for a potentially overactive hurricane season and expanding new technology to minimize blackouts.
There are many reasons why the power might go out — a storm, a fallen tree branch, a car hitting an electrical pole, even squirrels or snakes coming into contact with equipment.
It’s an operator’s job to respond to all of those situations with speed and precision, pinpointing the site of the outage for repair crews while addressing customers’ concerns.
“It takes a lot of multitasking, but also a lot of focus,” Huntley said.
In the event of a larger outage, operators can reroute power through other parts of the grid to minimize disruption to customers — a process called “back-feeding.”
Recently, Duke Energy has been rolling out new “self-healing” technology that can do some of that rerouting automatically. Self-healing technology works almost like a GPS system in your car, Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said.
“If you’re driving along and it says there’s an outage ahead, you take a road to get around the outage and stay on your way,” he said. “This is a GPS for the power grid, helping to identify outages and quickly reroute power to other lines to restore service faster.”
Brooks said the technology can reduce the number of customers an outage impacts by up to 75%, sometimes bringing power back online within a minute.
Right now, though, only about 20% of Duke Energy’s customers in North and South Carolina benefit from that technology. But the company, which supplies power to 4.4 million customers across both states, has plans to grow that number up to 80% in the coming years.
The Charlotte control center, which has been in use for just shy of five years, is critical to achieving that goal.
“This facility was designed with the future in mind,” Brooks said.
Duke Energy’s operations in North and South Carolina are divided into two sections: Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress. The Charlotte facility is the primary control center for the Carolinas section, which includes cities like Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Greenville, South Carolina. Duke Energy Progress is run out of a similar control center in Raleigh.
WATCHING OUT FOR WEATHER, TREES, TEXTS
The Charlotte complex is one part of a changing power grid that is growing ever-smarter, Brooks said.
As Duke Energy works toward its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 — meaning it does not emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it takes out — the company has to look for new ways of generating power.
While historically, electricity flowed almost exclusively from power plants to homes and businesses, today power moves through the grid in multiple directions as technologies like solar panels and battery storage have increased in popularity.
And as the intensity of extreme weather events increases due to climate change, utility providers must maintain a diversity of energy resources to power the grid. The Charlotte control center manages electricity generated not only by fossil fuels but also from nuclear and renewable sources.
Keeping the lights on isn’t only done with advanced technology, though.
“Tree trimming, even though it’s not always popular with our customers, is a really important way we can improve reliability,” Brooks said. More than half of Charlotte power outages in 2020 were caused by trees, he said.
Not texting and driving is also a good way to mitigate outages, Brooks said. He’s noticed a recent increase in cars hitting electrical poles, which he attributes to people looking at their phones instead of the road.
OUTAGES IN REAL TIME
Inside the control center, operators sit surrounded by computer monitors in pods, each responsible for a different section of Duke Energy Carolinas’ grid. There’s a low hum of conversation as they coordinate with customers and field crews.
Then, as if right on cue during the Observer’s tour, a power outage was reported in Greenville, South Carolina.
Operators in the corresponding pod got on the phone with field technicians and worked to reroute power around the outage site. “It was a little little influx of activity,” Huntley said, “but it’s normal day-to-day operations.”
And the self-healing technology, Huntley added, was helping out.
“We’ll actually be able to direct the technicians quicker to that specific area instead of saying, ‘Hey, all of this is out but I’m not sure exactly where.’ It makes it a whole lot easier.”
Within a few minutes, most of the power was restored.