It’s winter again and it makes me chuckle inside when I see people that are taken by surprise. Some people aren’t like you and me.
Power outages are a real threat in winter weather - there are ALWAYS power outages with any snow storm.
We have Winter Storm Kari bringing even more snow to an already battered New England. And, Kari comes on the heels of Winter Storm Juno. (Yep, Juno wasn’t nearly as strong as they predicted but it still put snow on the ground.)
Now, I don’t know much about naming snow storms but I can tell you when one hits, I’m ready for it and you should be, too.
Let’s look at some other major threats to our delicate power grid.
1. Severe Storms
Pretty much any storm creates power outages in its wake. Whether it’s from tree branches that break and fall on power lines or the wind itself knocking them down, our electrical distribution network is extremely vulnerable to the weather.
While a tree branch taking out a power line may not seem like it could cause significant damage to the grid in 2003 one such incident left 50 million people in the eastern U.S. without power for days. (See Wikipedia) The lost power line caused part of the grid to become overloaded, which then shut down, causing an overload in the next section. Before long the cascade effect had covered a large area, affecting those 50 million people.
While a simple thunderstorm can cause power lines to go down, more severe weather, such as hurricane can leave whole regions without power for weeks at a time.
Both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy left some people without electrical power for over a month. Even so, with help from crews that drove in to help from unaffected areas, much of the grid was restored fairly quickly.
Should major storms hit a number of areas of the country at the same time, repairs would probably be much slower; slower even than in Hurricane Katrina’s case.
There are only so many crews that can help repair those lines, so the more extensive the damage, the longer the repair time. Fortunately, the only thing that storms damage is the power lines themselves.
2. Heavy Snowfall and Ice
Ice accumulations on the power lines can add enough weight to the line that they can actually snap. This is a common problem in the northeast, around the Great Lakes and in the northwest, where they have severe storms and very cold weather.
Once again, this is a problem which just affects the power lines, but cold weather and continuing ice on the roads can hinder repair operations. Repair crews are subject to extreme weather situations which can be dangerous to the crews.
Setting up lift trucks on icy roads doesn’t provide as secure a footing as setting them up on dry ground. This adds another layer of danger to their work.
3. High Electrical Demand
Hot summers create a high demand for electricity to run home and business air conditioners. Electrical usage can soar to three times the normal load, putting a different sort of strain on the equipment.
When high demand loads exist, power lines can heat up from the amount of electrical power running through them. This causes them to sag, sometimes to the point where they touch the ground or other items.
When an electrical power line touches the ground, it shorts out, unlike what you see on the movies. It is very rare that the lines stay “hot.” Lines are fused to prevent damage to equipment, but even so, high demand and a short can cause a transformer to blow, especially if the short happens between the transformer and the next fuse in the system.
Cute little squirrels are actually one of the biggest hazards to the electrical grid. Since they are rodents, squirrels chew though the insulation on lines, creating the opportunity for short circuits. Many power outages every year are caused by nothing more than squirrels.
One other way in which squirrels short out power lines is when they jump across the terminals of the transformers. Squirrels are notoriously short in their education about high voltage and the lessons of shorting out the terminals don’t get passed on from generation to generation, as the guilty squirrel dies instantly.
Unfortunately, they cut off power at the same time, by blowing the fuse on that transformer. At times, they actually short out the transformer in the same way, making for a spectacular explosion.
5. EMP Attack
Electromagnet pulse is probably the greatest potential danger to our power grid. While we have never received such an attack, the likelihood of it continues to increase. Any of our enemies around the world could attack us with an EMP, destroying the grid.
An EMP is created when a nuclear bomb is exploded above the atmosphere. Since there is no atmosphere to absorb the bomb’s energy, it goes out as pure electromagnetic energy, rather than being converted to heat and blast energy. That energy would then travel through the atmosphere, hitting all solid-state electronic devices that it encounters on reaching the surface of the Earth and destroying it.
An EMP attack conducted 100 km over Kansas would take out the electronics in a little over half of the United States, as well as taking out all the power plants in that region. One conducted at 300 km altitude would destroy electronics and power plants across the entire continental United States. Only Alaska and Hawaii would survive such an attack.
To give you an idea of how easy this sort of an attack would be to orchestrate, a SCUD missile can reach an altitude of 200 km. Armed with a nuclear bomb and fired off a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico, this attack could take out somewhere between 75 and 85% of the country’s electronics and electrical power generation. According to federally mandated studies, this would cause the death of 90% of the people living in the affected areas, within one year.
6. Solar Storms
Severe solar storms can produce something almost identical to an EMP attack. Depending upon the severity of the storm, it could be even more devastating than an EMP, simply because it could wipe out everything electronic in the entire side of the earth which was facing the sun when it struck.
We missed such a solar storm in 2014. While the storm happened, the electrical discharge from it went in a different direction, bypassing Earth.
However, we are living in a time of increased sunspot activity, which also includes increased solar storms. So, the possibility still exists for another solar storm to cause widespread loss of electrical power here on Earth.
7. Terrorist Attacks
Our electrical power grid is totally unprotected from any sort of terrorist attack. The one exception to this is the 62 nuclear power plants operating in the United States. However, in those cases, the guards are civilian guard forces, who are probably not sufficiently large to stop a determined attack by armed terrorists.
A sniper attack on a electrical power substation in San Jose, California in April of 2014 shows how easy it would be for terrorist cells to take out sections of our electrical power grid.
In just over 19 minutes, shots fired by snipers took out the 17 transformers in the large substation. The snipers obviously knew what they were doing, as they fired into the cooling systems for the transformers, draining them of their cooling fluid. Repairs to the substation took 27 days.
This attack has been called “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” even though they still don’t know who attacked the substation and no arrests have been made.
Some electrical substations are larger and more important than others. In this case, power company officials were able to reroute power, providing the residents of Southern California with power. According to one power company official, there are ten key substations throughout the grid, which if attacked, could bring down the power nationwide.
8. Cyber-Terrorism or Cyber-Warfare
A totally separate form of attack on our power grid would be directly against our country’s power generating capability. In the last few years, power companies have reported 13 cyber attacks against power plants.
These are believed to be test attacks, done by foreign government sponsored hackers overseas to determine their ability to enter our grid and take it down if necessary.
China especially has invested a lot in cyber-warfare, creating a separate military branch for it. They are years ahead of the United States in this area, including in our ability to protect our systems against such attacks. Should China decide that they wanted to shut down the United States, they could do so.
Ever scarier than shutting down our electrical generating capability would be to take control of our nuclear power plants and cause serious reactor “accidents.” Such incidents could ultimately poison much of the country with radioactivity, making huge portions of the country inhabitable for centuries.
9. Government Regulation
Recent EPA regulations force the shutdown of all coal-fired power plants by the year 2020. As coal is the number one source of electrical power in the country, replacing that much power generation capability in the short time available will be an extremely expensive challenge for our electric companies.
This is part of President Obama’s push towards green energy. He expects that by forcing the electric companies to forego coal as an energy source, it will push the move towards green energy.
The major problem with that is that green energy technology has not yet reached the point where it can be used exclusively. Every solar power plant that is in use is backed up by a coal-fired plant that is run on “idle” in case a cloud passes over the solar array.
While solar power shows great promise, it is limited to daylight hours. Without an effective way of storing huge amounts of power, something that nobody has been able to invent so far, it can only operate during daylight hours.
Another way that the government harms the electrical grid is in interfering with the building of new power plants. A plethora of regulations, red tape and permits are required for each new power plant.
At the current rate of government action, it will be impossible for energy companies to build the necessary power plants by 2020.
As government regulations continue to put constraints on the power generation industry, it will continue to increase our electrical costs and may create situations where there are blackouts or brownouts, due to there being more electrical demand than there is electrical generation capability.
10. Old Age
We finally come full circle to where we started. Much of our electrical grid has been in service longer than it was ever intended to be. From power plants to distribution lines, we have equipment that has outlived its usefulness, with some electrical power lines going back to the 1880s.
Age doesn’t usually stop the grid from working all by itself, unless something breaks; but it does make it easier for any of the above mentioned problems to cause problems with the grid.
Were all our systems new, there would be less potential for blackouts and brownouts; but with the age of our current infrastructure, it’s no wonder that the number of significant blackouts is on the increase.