"The idea is to limit the damage," Cooper said. "With sensors out there, we can identify and stabilize the problem, like the body does with clotting. Essentially, we contain the damage."
The safest place on the grid is ... off the grid?
Another way of containing the damage, or avoiding it entirely, is to reduce dependency on the grid, Cooper said. Microgrids, or power systems that generate part or all of their own power, are better insulated against the "cascade effects" that plague larger systems, he said.
During Sandy, a housing project in Brooklyn called Co-op City managed to keep its lights on even while the power went dark in the buildings around it, thanks to a 5-megawatt generator and an efficient thermal energy provisioning system, he said.
Not only does self-sufficiency protect the microgrid in question -- it can also lower demand on larger utilities.
"If the microgrid is producing power, they can shift some of that over to relieve pressure on the grid," Cooper said.
"The message I want to get out there is that there is an ecosystem approach that says we can work on this problem from both ends -- both customers and utilities can be working on this issue at once," he said.
EEI's Eisenbrey said that, while self-sufficiency would likely play a role in shaping the future grid, there is still work to be done in policy and planning before such strategies can be widely integrated.
"We as an industry are looking at some customers seeking to become more independent, and we believe there's a real role utilities can play in that," Eisenbrey said. "At the same time, there are regulatory and cost recovery issues we're interested in working through before [microgrids] come into vogue."
"Even if you're on a microgrid, and becoming self-sufficient, you're going to have to depend on your local utility as a backup system," he added. "That raises issues of costs being shifted to other consumers who are essentially paying for that grid as a battery backup."
Stronger doesn't necessarily mean harder
Such solutions, which are broadly grouped under the title "grid resilience," are relatively new to the debate on vulnerability. A more familiar line of debate concerns "grid hardening."
As its name implies, grid hardening aims to shore up the grid before problems occur, rather than shortening response time or containing damages.
The most oft-discussed technique in this vein is the burial of power lines. The practice is widespread in Europe and has contributed to a lower rate of outages in countries like Germany, which buries almost much of its transmission infrastructure.
Invariably, weather events that affect the grid are quickly followed by calls for the United States to follow suit. But as many experts have noted in the fallout from Sandy, much of the grid damage was sustained below ground, as flooded saltwater corroded lines and fuse boxes.
"When responding to natural hazards, you have to be very careful that you do your redesign in an all-hazards way rather than just against one storm," said Joel Gordes, president of the consultancy Environmental Energy Solutions. "Maybe burying power lines would help for one kind of storm, but what about floods in the future? Right now, too much of the time, we're looking at this on a storm-by-storm basis."
Eisenbrey agreed that burying power lines, while useful in some cases, is probably not a universal prescription for the grid.
"Utilities are looking into undergrounding for parts of the system, generally the most vulnerable parts," said Eisenbrey. However, both above-ground and below-ground power lines have advantages and drawbacks, he said. While more resilient to wind and falling trees, subterranean power lines are more vulnerable to flooding and require higher costs and longer periods to repair.