Just How Bad Is It When the Grid Goes Down

Power Grid

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. electric grid loses power 285 percent more often than it did in 1984 the year they began keeping track of such things.

The study further reveals that blackouts cost American businesses as much as $150 billion per year in lost wages, spoiled foods, halted production, damage to the grid components themselves and so forth (Clark, 2014). The 150 billion is just what they know about. How much would it cost you as an individual or family if the grid failed and you were without electricity for days, weeks, or even months?

The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2014 gave the electrical grid a D+. They evaluated the grid for security and other vulnerabilities and found it lacking across the board (Geiger, 2016).

According to a report issued in 2014 by the United States Department of Energy, “The United States suffers more blackouts than any other developed country in the world.” How is this possible you might wonder?

Antiquated infrastructure and a failure to invest and follow through on replacements and repairs is the main cause according to experts. One of the biggest problems is that states, cities, and communities simply do not have the money to repair or replace the infrastructure that supplies water and power to their cities and towns.

Everyone has a vested interest in maintaining the local infrastructure, but financially strapped cities cannot come up with the money to invest in new technology, parts, or experts to maintain the system properly.

It falls on the U.S. taxpayer to subsidize the repairs and we see how well that has worked out here lately, see Flint Michigan, for example. It cost money and when taxpayer money is involved, politicians of course are involved and that is generally when things go off the rails.

Vital components of the U.S. power grid are Large Power Transformers or LPT’s. LPT’s, which are scattered about the country and they are on average 40 years old. That’s old for a transformer so why not replace them (Energy.Gov U.S. Department of Energy, n.d.).

Here is Why They Don’t Get Replaced

They have to be custom built and it takes somewhere around 20 plus months and millions of dollars ( between 2 and 7.5 million, the cost in 2010) to make just one, and by the way only between six and nine power transformer manufacturing facilities exist in the United States today. Some may not be accredited or ready to start producing because the demand for steel and copper is so high it requires bids and so forth before the metals can be purchased.

The process just to be able to produce these components is a lengthy one, so thus, the reason for the varying number of manufactures at any one time here in the U.S. Some plants in the U.S. cannot produce the larger transformers that are needed to meet the growing demand. Together, the U.S. manufactures can only meet approximately 15 percent of the Nation’s demand for power.

Several manufacturers may be able to make a medium voltage transformer, while only one or two companies can make the extra high voltage transformer, which can take close to two years to make just one, providing they stay on schedule.

Transmission Voltage Classes

  • (kV) Medium Voltage 34.5, 46, 69, 115/138
  • High Voltage 115/138, 161, 230
  • Extra High Voltage 345, 500, 765 

Source: DOE, 2006

Only 15 percent or so, meaning the rest are manufactured outside the U.S then. Did we mention they weigh in excess of 400 tons? Not something you can pick up at your local UPS store and toss in the back of a pickup and go replace when one blows up, gets blown up, melts down, or simply stops working.

Put in a work order, write a huge check, and twiddle your thumbs for several years, only then to hear we can’t’ afford one without some federal money, so wait a few more years on a grant or a loan from the “Feds”. In the meantime, patch, cobble together, and do whatever you can, to get the power restored to tens of thousands of your paying customers, and pray that a heavy cloud cover doesn’t knock the power out again.

The blackouts mentioned above are caused by Mother Nature and an aging infrastructure. Imagine if someone really tried to shut the grid down, do you think anyone would have that much trouble doing it.

Delta Airlines just days ago experienced, a so-called power outage at their home base in Atlanta Georgia. Georgia Power disputes this claim, however, by saying that Delta was the only one affected by the alleged outage. Therefore, did someone target Delta, and then simply unplugged them from the grid, or is there some second tier infrastructure that supplies big companies that we are unaware of that failed, or were their computers hacked.

Delta of course would not want to admit someone with a laptop and a fat-free latte in the airport lounge grounded all flights for six hours. This one incident created havoc for tens of thousands of people. Imagine the chaos spreading. A power outage or computer hack, the results are the same.

We talk about “The Grid” a lot, but actually, there are three grids (called interconnections), which supply all of North America. There is the Eastern and Western interconnection and then there is the Texas interconnection. The Eastern provides electricity east of the Rockies and the Western interconnection provides power west of the Rockies while the Texas interconnection supplies most of Texas but not all. The Texas grid is the smallest, and some parts of Texas are supplied by both the Eastern and Western interconnections. (Geiger, 2016).

How the three interconnections are supposed to work and how they actually work are two different things.

Well three grids are better than one right. Yes, three grids are better than one, but having three only gives you more time, however, three does not solve the problem. One collapsing would be a catastrophe, but one that unfolds at a slower pace considering there are two more grids that will operate for a certain period. A slower moving crisis would give those not initially affected time to prepare, if there is such a thing as preparing for a total collapse of all three grids.

If the Eastern grid failed or even began to function at a lower capacity, for example, one of the remaining two interconnects would pick up the slack. This happens quite often with little to no consequence. It gets hot in the western states in the summer months and thus the grid is taxed beyond its capability in some cases, and power is then siphoned from the eastern grid to bring things back to 100 percent.

However, if the western grid failed completely the remaining two grids could not sustain full capacity for very long. The remaining interconnects would fail as well, at some point. Remember all three interconnects are operating with decades old components that will fail when stressed, whereas, newer parts may be able to sustain the stress until repairs could be completed or new components installed.

Granted this is only conjecture, but logic tells us that a newer part that is a year old could sustain more stress than one that is say 40 years old or even older. Having all of your eggs scattered in three separate baskets only allows you more time to come up with some options, it does not ensure you save all the eggs when disaster strikes.

Using solar and wind power is actually making things worse. You need a well functioning power grid for solar and wind energy to work. Wind and solar units produce electricity when the sun is shining and when the wind is blowing. The energy produced may very well exceed the need in a home for example, so where does the surplus electricity go, it flows back to the grid to be used by your neighbors possibly or to the grocer down the street or for someone miles away. Surplus energy flowing back to the grid puts some stress on the grid, and an aging system cannot withstand much stress.

Imagine an entire community went off grid by using solar and wind power, and the grid failed. Where would the excess go, well to a battery bank, which would store the power for when there wasn’t any sunlight like at night. How big of a battery bank would be needed, and is this even conceivable for a large city. Batteries leak, they can explode and they do wear out. The same applies to wind turbines. The surplus has to go somewhere.

The push for solar and wind is ongoing, but in the fine print it states for the systems to be sustainable on a large scale they must depend on a well operating grid system. Those without a battery backup system for their alternative power sources would be out of luck if the grid failed completely.

Okay, we hope we have presented the problem in a well thought out manner. What are the answers, what can you do to prepare so you can survive is the next set of questions.

The next article or articles will discuss some things you can do to prepare. We will not fear monger, but present the facts and some opinions of course, but we don’t believe in running around yelling the sky is falling unless, of course it is.

Opinions presented will be based on prior experiences and common sense and research using credible sources that you can verify yourself if it comes to that.

There are no magic pills. No single piece of gear that you can buy and we will not present some of the more, shall we say “arcane” methods some Doomsday bloggers profess to use. So arcane in fact, they are the only ones that know how they work, and only when you reach for your wallet will they share their mysterious knowledge.

Clark, M. (2014, July). Retrieved 2016, from http://www.ibtimes.com/aging-us-power-grid-blacks-out-more-any-other-developed-nation-1631086

DOE. (n.d.). Retrieved 2016, from http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/Large%20Power%20Transformer%20Study%20-%20June%202012_0.pdf

Energy.Gov U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.). Retrieved 2016, from http://energy.gov/oe/downloads/2013-reliability-markets-peer-review-day-1-presentations

Geiger, J. (2016, August). Retrieved 2016, from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/lights-inevitable-failure-us-grid-230000502.html