08 September 2009

Life After Electricity: When Transformers Fail

Large power transformers of 100 MVA or larger can fail singly or en masse. They cost over $2 million each to replace, and can take from 18 months to 24 months to receive a replacement from overseas suppliers. These large transformers begin failing spontaneously after 40 years of service, and a large number of US power transformers date back to the 1960s or earlier. Source

Large power equipment can fail en masse under the assault of an EMP attack or an extreme solar event. An organisation called EMPACT America is holding an EMP conference in Niagara Falls at this time: from Sept 8 2009 through Sept 11 2009. They are discussing ways that the US and Canadian power grids can be hardened against EMP and solar events.

Opinions are divided as to how vulnerable the North American power grid actually is to EMP.
Should some of the roughly 300 transformers that are the backbone of our electrical grid be damaged or destroyed, the interruption to the electrical grid will not be brief. Today, we have few back-ups in place. These large and complex pieces of equipment are all produced overseas and it takes at least a year to take delivery of even one, let alone many.

Dr. William Graham, President Reagan's Science Advisor, estimates that, if the electricity is off in large sections of America (far more than the relatively small part of the country afflicted by Katrina) for as long as a year, the effect will not simply be on the quality of life here. He says as many as nine out of ten of our men, women and children will die from starvation, disease and/or exposure. _CenterforSecurityPolicy
Manufacturers of electrical equipment are a bit more sanguine about the ability of heavy power equipment to withstand power surges of short duration. They are concerned about electronic control systems, however.
External grid monitoring and communication equipment are not normally shielded against EMPs. Advanced meters and syncrophasors are examples of new devices whose microprocessors would be destroyed or damaged by an EMP. Even if the underlying power equipment is operational, an EMP will likely cause failures or misoperation of grid control systems. If remote devices are partially damaged, the central control center may not differentiate between grid fault conditions or misreporting sensors. Special protection systems may deploy inadvertently.

...Some EMP warfare scenarios envision multiple blasts over a short duration. Many fault reclosers are designed to "lock out" if several faults occur rapidly, such as four trips in three minutes. Since an EMP affects all devices over a wide geographic area, multiple EMPs could lock out a large number of reclosers, resulting in islanded areas or lost load. Restoration of transmission paths would require cumbersome manual switching, especially if remote communications are also interrupted. _NEMAblog
There are many ways in which the 3 stages of an EMP could shut down power to part or all of a utilities service area. Your electrical power utility is vulnerable. The question is how long should you expect to be without power, should the EMP scenario ever occur in reality.

Of course, that depends upon how well hardened your utility's power equipment is, and how well prepared the utility is for inevitable failures of electronic control systems. If failures are limited to electronic circuits, and the utility is well-stocked with electronic control replacement parts, re-start may take only a matter of several days to several weeks.

If larger electrical equipment is damaged, the power outage could last for months to years, while awaiting expensive replacements from overseas.

How would you like to live in a city without electricity for a year or two? What if your entire state, province, or region were affected? What if most of North America were without power for weeks, months, or years? What do you think would happen to you and those around you?

Here is one scenario

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Blogger fboness said...

So, civilization ends and the only survivors will be Amish and cockroaches.

Tuesday, 08 September, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

At the rate civilised people are failing to procreate, it had to happen sooner or later.

I don't think third world people would appreciate being referred to as cockroaches, however. ;-)

Seriously, people who can eat, drink, procreate, and excrete sustainably without electricity would be at a distinct advantage.

Tuesday, 08 September, 2009  
Blogger neil craig said...

During the Yugoslav wars NATO knocked out much of the country's electricity using grapgite bonbs (putting graphite into transformers not only knocks it out but ensures it cannot be repaired uwthout removing every microscopic speck). Not all the country's electricity was destroyed but it is still comparable with this scenario & did not lead to massive deaths.

Wednesday, 09 September, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

Interesting point, Neil. Such graphite attacks could be carried out by saboteurs on the ground using mobile rockets or bombs.

The described damage to Yugoslavia might correspond to damage to a few US counties plus a city or two. Expensive to repair, but not catastrophic in terms of human lives.

A months- or years-long shutdown of the entire North American electrical grid would be a qualitatively different experience, of course.

Particularly since such an attack would likely occur in the middle of simultaneous, larger scale hostilities elsewhere in the world.

Wednesday, 09 September, 2009  
Blogger read it said...

Okay, question out of blatant ignorance. My husband wants to put solar panels up, so I wonder if they would be affected by this EMP. I hesitate to go against his ideas, even when he can't explain his reasoning because he has the maddening habit of almost always being right. The other thought was a natural gas generator in the attic that runs all the electric for your house if the power goes out. They are popular here. This is a hurricane vulnerable area so I lean toward the generator which would be useful in case of the usual power outages and not susceptible to wind/debris damage. However, the solar panels provide electric all the time. His line of reasoning is something to the effect of you don't know how high energy prices may go (he is an economist for an energy company) and better to pay for the panels now. If the electric bill is $400 a month now, imagine what Obama's plan could jack it up to. I just think he doesn't want to have to have a lot of volatile expenses when he retires.

What have I not considered?

Wednesday, 09 September, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

EMP is still a low probability event. Hurricanes are more likely, but are limited in their area of destruction. In other words, power will be restored within weeks, if not days, after a serious hurricane.

Solar panels would be particularly valuable after an EMP knocked out the grid. If the damage to the grid was widespread, it could take months or years to restore grid power. Solar panels are also great for off-grid purposes, such as remote cabins and installations where hooking to the grid is not practical.

Remember that EMP can knock out semiconductor electronics, so if you want your electronic equipment to survive an EMP it should be shielded.

Right now, for most everyday home use, solar panels don't make economic sense as long as you have the grid readily available. Unless you are thinking of a grid intertie situation to reduce your utility bill. Even so, you may well never achieve payback for your solar panel purchase.

The sun only provides about 6 hours a day of fully rated power from your panels, so you need to divide your nominal solar capacity by 4 when doing load calculations.

Wednesday, 09 September, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

"If failures are limited to electronic circuits, and the utility is well-stocked with electronic control replacement parts, re-start may take only a matter of several days to several weeks."

Hahaha, thanks man I needed that laugh!

I can't imagine a CEO even trying to justify that expense to the shareholders, even if it makes perfect sense to us. Then after the initial costs, there's the additional disincentive of all the taxes on the extra inventory that have to be paid every year (at least in some states).

I doubt most utilities keep more spare equipment on hand than they think is absolutely necessary for normal failures. I believe the "months to years" option you present is the more likely outcome.

Saturday, 12 September, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

Hmmm, thanks Paul. I hadn't thought about extra inventory being taxed every year by state governments. Talk about dysfunctional government . . .

If large parts of the grid were taken out in a concerted attack, restart would be piece-meal, in stages. Some areas might come back up in days or weeks, as surviving equipment is scavenged from less critical service areas and installed in more critical service areas.

Installation of whatever spare inventory exists would be prioritised by whatever authority is in charge at that time.

Saturday, 12 September, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another option is conversion to a DC grid. Right now the only major supplier for DC grid parts is ABB, but they do some manufacturing here in the US, and could be persuaded to make the parts here if we placed a big enough order. I think the DC rectifiers and inverters are modular or could be made so allowing large junctions to be built out of smaller, common parts.

In any EMP attack California would suffer, but that is because Cali has persued stupid policies.

Of course, a DC grid would require federal co-operation, which may not be possible.

And of course, we have a dysfunctional government because we have a dysfunctional people.

I guess every people will eventually get what they deserve.

Sunday, 13 September, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

There are a lot of good reasons for installing high voltage DC backbones across the country.

I'm not so sure that the power electronics (inverters and rectifiers) and grounding systems are completely impervious to EMP, however.

Remember, Ron: As William Munny said to Little Bill, just before shooting his head off, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." BANG!

Monday, 14 September, 2009  
Blogger techrentals said...

Large transformers seldom do commit mistakes, but they are vulnerable for any problems still. Knowing the fact that they can still experience faulty problems, it is recommended that these electrical power transformers should be checked by professionals every now and then.

Monday, 16 November, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

DC backbones are a bad idea. Unlike AC, DC has really high losses, so if you put a million volts in one end, you'd only get out half a thousand on the other. It is the reason that barely anything these days runs on DC.

Wednesday, 07 July, 2010  

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