Extreme weather is a cause of power outages around the world, and the situation in Argentina is a reminder that US power grids are not ready to manage the increasing intensity of storms resulting from climate change. Although the United States is not likely to see a national power outage like the one that hit Argentina, localized failures here have increased in frequency and duration in recent years This is due to a significant share of Forest fires, snowstorms, tornadoesand hurricanes This causes power outages often affecting tens of thousands of people, and sometimes much more.
"It is clear that extreme weather events have increased over the past 20 years, as have the number of outages and the number of hours of service absence," said Alison Silverstein, energy consultant. Independent and former advisor to the President of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "We need to accept this and do a better job of helping customers and communities survive these growing failures and threats."
Modern power grids are designed as a strip, which helps to isolate faults as much as possible. If a high-voltage line between power plants fails, the power can be redirected through other channels. But as Silverstein points out, the vast majority of power outages experienced by Americans are due to failures in the distribution networks, the "last mile" of the power grid, and not to power plants or transmission lines. While the transmission system is like the web, the distribution system is designed as a tree. This means that if a failure occurs on one of the tree nodes, it can disrupt the rest of the local distribution system.
"Extreme weather events are worsening and there are more and more," Silverstein said. "We need to plan the distribution system and change the processes to deal with these issues, not just wringing our hands and acting in that way is normal." What is "normal", you've changed and it's getting worse. "
The United States had a taste of massive network failure in 2003, when an overgrown tree in Ohio was triggered on the transmission line and a software bug failed to alert the utility. This banal event provoked a series of failures that left 55 million people in the northeast without electricity for several hours, some areas waiting for the lights to turn on again. The economic cost of the outage was estimated at around $ 6 billion and contributed to the death of at least 11 people. Subsequently, the United States Government has adopted a number of measures to prevent the recurrence of power outages of this magnitude.
These reforms were conducted in Argentina, an exceptional rarity in America, according to Ross Baldick, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that resilience to this type of event is also taken into account in the design of the US network at the transmission and generation levels. For example, modern network operators adhere to the "n-1" standard, which means that the system functions normally after a failure of a single generation station or a transmission line (the "n-1"). n ") bypassing the damaged entity.
Even in the event of multiple transmission failures, network operators can perform controlled network shutdowns to prevent further damage caused by overloaded transmission lines and limit the extent of the outage. In addition, the US network is divided into three major regional networks: East, West and Texan interconnections. If one of the regional grids was disconnected, Baldick said the other two grids would have sufficient capacity to continue operating.
In other words, the only way to bring down the entire US network, or even an entire interconnection, is to through cyberwar, a coordinated attack on key infrastructure points, or via the preferred energy of Trump administration, electromagnetic pulses. Each of these scenarios is relatively unlikely to occur. The United States has stepped up the cyber security of its energy infrastructure after it became apparent targeted by foreign pirates; physical security on major transmission sites and power plants has been strengthened after 2003, and the network can probably survive a good EMP.
This means that the key to energy security is less about the mass energy system than about strengthening the network at the local distribution level. Silverstein says that many customers, utilities and decision makers in the electricity sector are already taking steps to make the distribution system more resilient, for example microgrids or have on-site energy production and storage. But there is still a lot to do. The establishment of distribution networks to integrate more intelligent micro-grids and switching between local networks will facilitate the survival of the power outage and the restoration of power. The construction of energy-efficient buildings will reduce the constraints on the network. Moving the equipment out of current and future flood zones will reduce downtime, or the simple construction of more robust utility poles can help reduce outages in the future. to come up.
So while America may not be threatened by a large scale power outage, there is no doubt that we will increase localized outages in the future. Now is the time to start planning for this event before the lights go out.
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