The Increasing Vulnerability of the Electric Grid

This is a critical issue:

LAST weekend’s vigilance against potential terrorist attacks was an impressive demonstration of America’s resolve to prevent events of September 11th 2001 from ever happening again. From your correspondent’s hillside perch above Santa Monica Bay, he watched National Guard F-16 jets make repeated sweeps across the ocean by Los Angeles International Airport and then on to the huge port complex of Long Beach and San Pedro, while a Navy P-3 Orion maritime-surveillance aircraft circled overhead. The cacophony was deafening but reassuring. Angelinos slept easier that night.
Yet, further down the coast, 6m citizens of southern California and south-west Arizona, along with their cousins across the Mexican border, were just recovering from a man-made disaster that had plunged their sweltering world into darkness—shutting down schools, hospitals, offices, factories, shops and restaurants, as lighting, air-conditioning and other essential equipment ceased to function.
Beaches in San Diego had to be closed to the public because raw sewage had seeped into the sea. Passengers on trains stuck between stations and trapped in lifts had to be rescued by the police. Flights from San Diego International Airport were cancelled because of the lack of runway lighting. With traffic lights out of action and petrol stations unable to pump, motorists abandoned their vehicles and added to the gridlock that ruled the roads. By great good fortune, no-one died or was seriously injured. But normal life, for those so affected, ground to a miserable and unnerving halt.

The difference between the two events could not have been more stark. One was all about preparedness and professionalism. The other was a forceful reminder of the chaos wrought by personal negligence and institutional neglect…

The power outage that swept across a large swathe of the American south-west on September 8th was the region’s worst cascading blackout in 15 years. It started at the North Gila substation near Yuma, Arizona, where a utility employee “was doing some work” on faulty equipment. Something happened (still under investigation) to cause the substation to shut down, disconnecting a 500kV transmission line connected to it and disrupting the electricity supply to Yuma’s 90,000 residents.

The immediate power shortage at Yuma caused the current—which normally flows along the grid’s key Southwest Power Link from Arizona to California—suddenly to reverse its direction. The result was a violent fluctuation in line voltage that fed back through the grid to trip switches at substations throughout the San Diego area. Altogether, some 15 power stations in the region shut down automatically to protect themselves from voltage swings—the biggest being the 2,200MW San Onofre nuclear power plant up the coast near San Clemente.

With the San Onofre plant disconnected and the umbilical cord from Arizona effectively severed, the delicately balanced grid serving San Diego and its adjacent counties quickly became unstable. Such problems would normally be resolved by ratcheting up the output of surrounding power stations. But with so little base-load capacity in the area, standby plants for meeting peak demand could not be spun up fast enough to stabilise the voltage. The overloaded grid promptly crashed, causing blackouts to spread across the region and into Mexico. The lights did not come back on until the following morning.

The wind was blowing at only 8mph and the sky was partially overcast. So, California’s lauded sources of renewable energy were of little help. If anything, they were part of the problem. Critics point out, with some justification, that California’s energy strategy of focusing on conservation and expanding intermittent sources of renewable energy—while ignoring the urgent need for more base-load generating capacity close to big cities—was the primary cause of the grid failure.

Entire article here.

Less money for TSA’s security theatre and more money to “harden” the electric grid would be a giant step in the right direction.

Next, lets stop the “magic thinking” regarding renewable energy and build the modern (and less polluting than earlier versions) generating plants we need.

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