17 March 2012

Devising Quicker Ways to Recover from EMP or Geomagnetic Storms

Either an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) or a geomagnetic storm could produce devastating effects on an electric power grid. Replacing crucial power transformers could take up to 2 years, during which time society would be falling apart at the seams for lack of power, and consequent lack of fuel and agricultural production and distribution.
The Electric Power Research Institute has been concerned about the effects of an EMP or geomagnetic storm on the US power grid (PDF) for a number of decades. A more recent FAS report (PDF) reiterates many of the same concerns which EPRI has expressed, although the FAS predictably focuses more upon the politically correct threat of geomagnetic storm, rather than on the perhaps more likely threat of EMP.

Regardless, between EPRI, the electric power industry, and other groups, the US Department of Homeland Security has taken a belated look at how large power transformers might be replaced in the event of a power grid catastrophe. Some clever engineers have come up with a few good ideas -- which could conceivably save millions of lives one day.
“If you have to order a transformer from someplace, it’s two years to do it,” said Richard J. Lordan, a senior technical expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Transformers were seen as a potential problem to the grid as far back as 1990, said Sarah Mahmood, a program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, which paid for about half of the cost of the $17 million drill, with the rest picked up by the electrical industry. Transformers are about the size of a one-car garage and usually painted some drab industrial color, but without them, intersecting power lines would be like elevated highways with no interchanges.

For the test, the Electric Power Research Institute ordered three “recovery transformers” from a supplier, ABB in St. Louis. This week they were trucked to a substation owned by CenterPoint Energy near Houston. For security reasons, the company will not say precisely where.

Shipping the replacements was a problem. Ordinary transformers are often too big and heavy to travel by road, and they require special rail cars. But because the transformers typically last 50 years, only a few dozen are shipped each year, so even the appropriate rail cars are in short supply. Ratcheting up the degree of difficulty, many of the places where a replacement transformer might have to go are no longer served by rail.

...the research institute tried a different approach, substituting three smaller, more mobile transformers for one conventional one, and specifying a size that would fit on a modified truck trailer. (A standard transformer costs roughly $5 to $7 million; buying and combining the three singles is slightly more expensive.)

Using a different transformer for each phase allowed shrinking the weight of the transformer from about 400,000 pounds for a single one to roughly 125,000 pounds for each of the three-phase units. In operation, the transformers are oil-filled, but in this case, the oil was shipped in tanker trucks in the convoy, to decrease weight.

With three transformers, three crews can work simultaneously to set them up, and setting up a small transformer is faster than setting up a big one.

In addition, installing a transformer usually requires pouring a concrete foundation, but one of these transformers was mounted on skids, eliminating that need..

...The next step will be a transformer unlike almost any in the field, that can be configured to work between more than two different voltages — say, operating not just between 138 kilovolts and 345 kilovolts, but also between 115 kilovolts and 345 kilovolts. That would cover a few hundred more.

In recent years, electric companies have been required to build entire duplicate control centers, at least 10 miles from the primary center, to reduce the possibility of a catastrophe that would knock down sections of the grid for months. After a flurry of fines and public embarrassments, the utilities have become better at maintaining their power lines. But this is the industry’s first major effort to solve the transformer problem.

A study for the Energy Department last year reinforced the need for speed, suggesting that hundreds of transformers could be lost to a “geomagnetic storm,” an eventuality that experts say could leave large parts of the North American continent blacked out for months. _NYT
Many government officials and politically correct "engineers" continue to doubt the need for this type of preparedness. Unfortunately, if they are wrong, as many as hundreds of millions of people in North America could lose their lives, due to their short-sightedness.

You would not expect the energy-starvationist Obama administration to be particularly concerned about the possible catastrophic fallout from its inept energy and foreign policies, and in general you would be right. But at lower levels of government, there still remain some conscientious and capable public servants who are still looking out for the public welfare.

If the energy starvationists can be ejected soon, society may be able to retain and expand upon these small numbers of competent civil servants in time to prepare for what appears to be more and more likely threats to the power grid -- from cyber-war to EMP to geomagnetic storm to threat from forcing excessive levels of intermittency onto the grid.

Cross-posted from Al Fin Energy

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Blogger Loren said...

They also need to keep the bread and circuses going to the cities to keep the vote base.

It's an interesting idea for taking care of the transformer problem. I'd say though that multi-tap transformers have been around for a long time, though perhaps not that big.

You also need to bug capcha, while these images might work well, they work too well if I have to type things two or three times to get a comment in.

Saturday, 17 March, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

I suspect the military has stockpiled some critical backup transformers or workaround devices for quick-patching the most important parts of the grid, for defensive purposes.

The problem with this type of threat is that you don't want to make it seem too easy or tempting for a two-bit nuclear power to knock out an entire continent of advanced infrastructure. On the other hand, you don't want to give away all of your compensatory strategies in advance.

Russia and China do not want to be linked directly to such a strike, but by assisting nuclear proliferation among terrorist promoting nation states such as Iran, they appear to be laying the groundwork for a great deal of mischief -- including EMP over Europe and/or North America.

Sunday, 18 March, 2012  

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