Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Normally Strong Grid's Self Inflicted Wounds

So only a few days ago you saw a post here about grid lessons from Hurricane Irene. Now we're back with another major grid event and I'm not sure what to call it other than the recent Arizona, San Diego and Mexico outage ... SanMexiZona outage perhaps?

Investigations are still being conducted, but what do we know so far? Well, a transmission maintenance issue impacted a substation in Arizona, and then:
  • Cascading failure reached into California and Mexico, knocking power out to millions
  • And caused 2 nuclear facilities to shut down
  • Navy and Marine bases turn to back-up diesel generators and kept non-essential personnel home
  • And many other types of trouble you'd expect from a black out in a large US city ensued, driving cost estimates into the hundreds of millions.
It's weird. In some ways the grid is a beast, capable of absorbing the worst insults and continuing operations largely unaffected. It virtually scoffs at earthquakes, raging fires, hurricanes, tornadoes ... and across the Pacific, even Godzilla stomping out of Tokyo Bay once in a while. Sure, some outages occur in the areas where equipment is destroyed. But the grid is usually a master of defense and containment.

But then a little thing happens during routine maintenance and a big chunk of the grid unexpectedly swoons. Amory Lovins and others on the 2008 DoD Science Board (DSB) task force on Energy identified the US grid as brittle and a threat to CONUS military readiness. Here's Lovins in 2010:
The US electrical grid ... is very capital-intensive, complex, technologically unforgiving, usually reliable, but inherently brittle. It is responsible for 98–99 percent of U.S. power failures, and occasionally blacking out large areas within seconds—because the grid requires exact synchrony across subcontinental areas … and can be interrupted by a lightning bolt, rifle bullet, malicious computer program, untrimmed branch, or errant squirrel.
Seems like some of the worst behaviors we see in the grid are avoidable. In addition to the many other benefits we often describe to regulators and general public with the Smart Grid build out, improvements to reliability have got to be high on the list, if not #1.

BTW - Try Googling "Errant Squirrel" - it's simply amazing how active (and errant) these critters have been!

Image credit: KUSI News San Diego