Posts Tagged ‘Electric Power Outages’

America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

August 31, 2017

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

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Preventive maintenance, the price of civilization

August 20, 2013

The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that human society was based on a contract between the present generation, past generations and generations yet to come.

He was speaking and writing about social institutions, but the same is just as true of the physical infrastructure of our society.

When I was a boy, electricity, telephone service and running water were not things that everybody had, and there were living people who could remember when these things are unusual.   I enjoy a higher material standard of living than my parents did, based on technologies I did nothing to create, from my Internet connection to my thermostat-controlled furnace.   I can’t repay my debt to previous generations, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  That’s what I think Burke meant.

Click to enlarge

These thoughts were prompted by an article I read in The Washington Post on-line by Brad Plumer about how electric power outages are becoming more common.   He noted that the U.S. electrical transmission system is aging and not being replaced, and wondered if there would be fewer outages if there were a more modern system.

Of course the expense of upgrading the transmission lines will have to be paid by someone—the utility stockholders, the utility customers or both.  The cost of neglect may be greater in the long-run, but the decision-maker won’t be around to face the consequences.

I think this is part of a larger problem—neglect of the preventive maintenance that is needed to keep our technological systems going.

grid-constructionThere is a lot of political support for gee-whiz technologies such as high-speed rail, but not so much for mundane work such as inspecting and upgrading the existing track system so that trains can proceed safely at normal speeds.

I don’t see this as an economic or governmental question as a question of attitude.  No matter what the system, there will be a temptation to put aside long-range concerns and focus on the next quarterly profit statement or the next election.  We live in the present and forget the generation yet to come.

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