If you watch the news regularly, you’ve likely seen stories about the fragile state of electrical grids in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, we have a growing problem on our hands. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), about 70% of transmission lines in the U.S. were 25 years or older. However, these lines have a usable lifespan of 50 years.
Meanwhile, the average age of large power transformers, or LPTs, is over 40 years. More than 90% of consumed power passes through one of these high-voltage transformers at some point during transmission, but they need more maintenance once they’re more than 40 years old.
The simple answer to address these problems is to replace LPTs as time allows, but several critical issues make it difficult. Buying a large power transformer can easily cost millions of dollars, take more than a year to produce, and need special equipment to transport and install. If that’s not enough to cause concern, LPTs are also custom-made, making them difficult to replace quickly.
As a result, many transformers are beyond their usable lifespan. Unfortunately, if one goes down, widespread power outages could occur. If an attack took out several transformers, large swathes of the country could be in the dark.
So, the grid is getting older, and problems are bound to develop – but age catches up to everyone, right?
Between tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, flooding, and blizzards, the electrical grid faces threats in almost every region in every way possible. Storms are getting more severe and have been coming more frequently in recent years.
Rising temperatures also often result in a mad rush to the AC, and the strain on the electrical grid can knock systems offline. Just this summer alone, a prolonged heatwave resulted in a massive uptick in electricity usage across several states. In California, there was concern that too much demand would result in rolling blackouts, but demand did not outweigh capacity. Still, residents were asked to conserve energy and reduce usage during peak times.
Beyond the ever-present threats of weather and heat are other issues that could spell trouble for a beleaguered electrical grid.
Cyber threats and attacks are becoming more of a reality, as countries like Russia and North Korea can bring down large-scale sections of the grid. These issues could take days to fix, and millions of people could be without power. Worse yet, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) believes the entire country could be without power for months if nine specific substations were to go offline.
Meanwhile, wild animals can wreak havoc if they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. A squirrel, for example, can easily damage lines by chewing the insulation off the cables. Birds and other animals may perch on lines, cats climb poles, and squirrels, mice, and snakes make their homes in the wrong place, causing community-wide blackouts.
And, of course, humans can do terrible things. In one unsolved case from April 2013, a sniper (or snipers) took out 17 transformers at an electrical substation providing power to Silicon Valley. The devastating attack put additional strain on nearby substations and took nearly a month to repair. To this day, no one has been charged.
So, with so many threats around us and increasing electrical demand looming, what can we do to develop a more reliable and resilient grid?
No system will be perfect, but there are ways to create a robust electrical grid while reducing overall risk for electrical utility providers and customers.
Microgrids are small electric grids that provide electricity to a small area. These small facilities have control capacity, allowing them to operate separately from the larger grid and operate on their own.
The smaller footprint is helpful because fewer people lose power if the microgrid fails. Following a natural disaster or an attack on the system, microgrids allow for faster repairs, reducing downtime.
From our smartphones and cars to our refrigerators and lightbulbs, seemingly everything in our lives is “smart.” Why can’t our electrical grid be, too?
Smart grid technology makes our systems more agile. With the technology, grids can detect system outages quickly and automatically divert electricity around them to restore power. Because the power system recognizes problems in real-time, smart grids can limit outages to minutes rather than hours while pinpointing where faults are.
Microgrids could see even more growth as the world invests more time, effort, and money into renewable energy. It’s possible to quickly connect renewable energy sources like wind and solar to the smaller grid, then use the energy to power local communities. Extra energy could be sent to the larger grid for distribution. Finally, because the power is locally sourced, less energy is lost during transmission, and the system is more efficient.
This plan isn’t a favorite among some experts but could be an option in certain situations.
If power lines and other frameworks are underground, they’re protected from animal damage and most weather concerns. This could be an option for communities with many residents or where extreme weather is more common.
Going underground isn’t for the faint of heart, though. It’s an expensive process, including costs far outside the project itself. There are permits, siting costs to consider, environmental costs associated with digging up the earth, and other expenses driving up the price.
Another downside: underground electrical transmission wires may be tough to locate if buried next to other wires, like fiber. Accidentally digging into a buried electrical line is incredibly dangerous and could cause severe injuries or even death. To properly locate the cables, you may need to use special equipment like a ground penetrating radar (GPR).
The cost of renewable energy has been steadily declining for the past decade, making it easier than ever to invest in utility-scale solar solutions.
Clean energy sources have a low cost of entry compared to other methods and don’t need fossil fuels to create electricity. They rely on the wind blowing and sunshine to provide massive amounts of clean power that eventually makes its way through the distribution grid to homes and businesses.
Despite what could be a boon for the energy industry, there are kinks to be worked out, especially how generated electricity is stored. Long-term battery technology still has a long way to go, and solar panel energy efficiency is slowly growing, but more funding will help the industry make strides.
Though it might not be the case, it certainly feels like threats to the electrical power grid are becoming more common.
In 2022 alone, we’ve seen Texas and California push their grids to the limits in the face of unprecedented heat waves. Most recently, Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida and Puerto Rico, taking down their grids. Puerto Rico was hit particularly hard, impacting a grid that hadn’t fully recovered from previous hurricane damage in 2017.
Cyber and physical threats are becoming more realistic, leaving utilities scrambling to find a solution to protect the grid. Now is the time to upgrade the electrical grid in new and innovative ways.
It’s possible to increase reliability and resiliency and still invest in emerging technologies. It’s also possible to operate smaller, smarter grids that cover shorter distances and can be repaired quickly without inconveniencing people.
Taking action to improve the grid will keep us all safer, more comfortable, and continuously moving forward.