Outages remind public of the grid's needs

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Outages remind public of the grid's needs Empty Outages remind public of the grid's needs

Post  topgroove on Tue Feb 19, 2013 4:46 pm

Outages remind public of the grid's needs
By Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
By Teresa Hansen,
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Light & Power and POWERGRID International magazines

The past few months have been unkind to the electric utility industry. Disruptive weather events, especially Hurricane Sandy, and a blackout during the Super Bowl, have caused politicians, regulators, media and customers to questions U.S. utilities' ability to provide reliable service.

It's unfortunate that news about the 34-minute outage that occurred shortly after the second half began could become bigger than news about the Ravens' victory over the 49ers. One of the many headlines I saw after the story broke read, "Blackouts are on the rise across the United States."

The article didn't include statistics or sources to back up this headline, but at this point the facts are less important than the perception: That electric utilities are failing at their job of providing uninterrupted, reliable electricity. When more than 108 million people are watching a live event on television and the lights go out, headlines and stories such as this one should be expected.

Editor's Note : Since the time of this writing, Entergy New Orleans has traced the cause of the Super Bowl outages to an electrical relay device.

The outage's cause hasn't been determined. Entergy New Orleans, which provides power to the Superdome, is working with its management to determine what happened. Nondisclosure of their findings hasn't, however, kept the media from reporting on likely causes. A report from CBS Interactive Inc. (CBS online news source) said Philip Allison, a communications specialist at Entergy, said power had been flowing into the stadium before the lights failed and all the distribution and transmission feeds into the Superdome were operating "as expected." According to the CBS report, Allison said the outage appeared to have been caused by the failure of equipment maintained by stadium staff.

An Associated Press report said Superdome officials "warned just months before the Super Bowl that the venue's electrical system could suffer a power outage and rushed to replace some of the equipment ahead of the big game." It doesn't say who these officials warned, but who cares? Once again, perception trumps fact.

Even if Entergy and Superdome management discover the cause was simple and could be easily fixed to avoid similar events at the venue, most people won't care; the public relations damage has been done. The outage is at best a black eye for Entergy New Orleans, as well as reinforcement to a conclusion made by many Americans: U.S. electric utilities are unreliable.

Utilities in the Northeast have been criticized heavily since Hurricane Sandy caused major damage to grid infrastructure in New Jersey and New York. The hurricane knocked out power to almost all of Long Island Power Authority's 1.1. million customers and some were without power for more than three weeks. Mainstream media, government officials and customers relentlessly criticized the utilities, especially LIPA, as well as their management. The criticism led to the resignation of Michael Hervey, LIPA's chief operating officer, the formation of a commission to investigate LIPA's slow response and aged infrastructure, as well as a recommendation by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to replace the non-profit municipal utility with a privately owned power company. Never mind that the storm's winds and surge were much worse than experts predicted or imagined, the consensus is that electric utilities should have been better prepared and customers deserve better.

Maybe one good thing that has come from these recent disruptive events is that people from outside the industry are beginning to recognize that the current electricity deliver infrastructure needs attention and investment. Admitting that a problem exists is the first step to solving it. The next step, which is resolution, will be much more difficult.

Upgrading the current infrastructure won't be cheap or easy. It will require cooperation between utilities, utility shareholders, regulators, politicians, technology providers and customers. All of these parties want electricity at a reasonable cost, however their definition of reliable and reasonable can be vastly different. At least the first steps of a long infrastructure rehabilitation and modernization process have been taken.

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Last edited by topgroove on Tue Feb 19, 2013 6:02 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Outages remind public of the grid's needs Empty It’s the Electric Grid, Stupid

Post  topgroove on Tue Feb 19, 2013 4:54 pm

It’s the Electric Grid, Stupid
Sep 9, 2011 11:03 PM EDT

Just as President Obama discussed America’s aging infrastructure, a major power outage in San Diego showed the strain on the nation’s aging energy grid.

Right around the time when President Obama started talking about ways to revive the economy, nearly five million televisions across Southern California and Arizona went black. It was ironic that while the president lamented the state of American infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and schools, that the U.S. electric grid gave out, an equally aging piece of American infrastructure that analysts have said is also in need of a major upgrade.

The Great Blackout of 2011 gridlocked traffic, closed schools and canceled flights. Electricity wasn’t fully restored until Friday morning, when the problem had appeared to be caused by a maintenance project gone awry near Yuma, Ariz.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) launched a joint inquiry into the lapse, which is common for major energy outages. Spokespeople for both agencies declined to speak for this article, but in a report released last month, the two agencies noted that a major power outage in the Southwest in February was caused by two main factors: unpredictable weather and the unreliability of the grid.

The early assessment of the latest blackout faults a major power line network connecting Arizona and California. When the maintenance project went bad, the network of power lines, which connect power plants to substations that allocate energy to different areas, caused a feedback loop of decreasing energy that essentially knocked much of the region off line.

Most power blackouts are initially caused by human error, like the iconic 2003 outage in New York when a maintenance project (and a falling tree) kneecapped much of the Northeast and parts of Canada—and left about 55 million people powerless—for about a day. But the resulting cascade is often a symptom of inadequate infrastructure and antiquated recovery measures. Learning from mistakes, regulators have mandated some new measures to ensure higher reliability, like trimming trees along busy transmission routes and better training for plant operators.
power outage
Traffic and pedestrians move through a powerless intersection following a power outage in Cardiff, Calif., Sept. 8, 2011. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

The most fundamental fix, however, has hardly been addressed. Last year, the Electric Power Research Institute studied America’s aging grid infrastructure. Most large transformers that regulate power transmission were designed with lifespans of 40 to 50 years to maximize reliability and efficiency. Yet the average age of transformers is 42 years old, and many are plagued by cosmetic breakdowns, like loosening screws and fraying wiring, which utilities have been unable to fix without finding new funding through rate increases.

Bill Richardson, former secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, said that America was “a superpower with a third-world grid.”

“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the technology that’s deployed,” says Clark Gellings, a research fellow with EPRI. “The advanced technology is only modestly deployed. Until we get a greater recognition of their value, we’re pretty much in the same place.”

Everyone from energy analysts to engineers have agreed. In 2008, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s grid infrastructure a “D” grade and said in a report that “the U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization.” Several years prior, Bill Richardson, former energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said that America was “a superpower with a third-world grid.”

Grid infrastructure is generally older in the East, mirroring the nation’s early origins. But the geography in California and the Southwest poses unique challenges. Greater distance between cities requires more reliable transmission. And higher landownership closes off corridors for new building. The issue of homeowners opposing any new transmission lines once known as NIMBY—“not in my back yard”—has now been replaced in energy circles by a hardened acronym, BANANA: “Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.”

“It’s been very difficult to site and build new lines out West,” says Erich Gunther, chief technology officer with EnerNex, an energy research and consulting firm. “So all those factors make it particularly challenging to keep up with things.”

One potential solution has long been a national smart grid, a revitalized network that would better allow cities and local communities to monitor power use and forecast usage peaks. Unused power or electricity generated by homeowners could more easily go back into the grid and be shuttled elsewhere. Next week, scores of policymakers, regulators, and technologists will meet in Washington at the nation’s biggest Smart Grid conference, known as GridWeek, to continue the effort to make it happen.

If it happens on a large scale, it’s likely to be mostly a private industry effort. “We have not been able to keep up with construction over the past decade,” admits Chris Hickman, CEO of energy research firm Innovari. “Because of the absolute lack of direction from fed government, it’s created a dramatic level of uncertainty.”

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