Tom Overbye serves as the director of Texas A&M University’s Smart Grid Center and is also a faculty member at the College of Engineering. He and his team specifically work on developing better engineering tools for electric grid-related situations including resiliency and severe weather impacts.

Tom Overbye serves as the director of Texas A&M University’s Smart Grid Center. (Courtesy Texas A&M University)

Community Impact interviewed Overbye about the current challenges when it comes to strengthening the electric power grid as well as the lessons learned on electric grid infrastructure after Hurricane Beryl left more than 2 million residents in the Greater Houston region without power. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why was this storm so severe?

I think the issue with this event isn’t that some people lost electricity—that would be expected in a hurricane—but that so many people lost electricity. I think that will be an issue with the investigations.

… I had a hard time believing it when I looked at the numbers on the power outage map and it was over 2 million. This is more of a transmission distribution issue.

Beryl was mostly a wires issue. What I suspect happened is you have trees falling on distribution lines and you also have higher wind knocking over some transmission towers and distribution towers as well.

As extreme weather becomes more common in the Gulf Coast region, what is the long-term strategy here?

I think the conversation is going to be around building resiliency into the grid by hardening structures and providing the engineers with the best tools to plan the grid effectively, realizing that we can’t harden everything in the next couple of years. So we need to prioritize what gets hardened and look at which lines are at most risk and which ones are critical loads like hospitals.

When you mention hardening structures, can you explain more?

It’s making both the distribution and transmission lines structures themselves stronger. It’s about tree management. Vegetation management certainly plays a role in this. There’s some devices we can install on the distribution wires that if a branch comes in contact with it, it doesn’t go out of service for a long time. This is what we call Smart Grid Technology that helps us minimize outages.