August 14, 2003, was like any other summer day in the Northeast… until the lights went out.
That afternoon, a sagging power line in Ohio started a chain reaction of electrical faults that spread across eight states and two countries, knocking out power for about 50 million people. Most were in the dark for a few hours, but it took two days to restore power to everyone.
The event was one of the largest blackouts in the United States up to that point. But beyond shutting off air conditioning and bringing the New York City Subway to a screeching halt, it highlighted the power grid’s fragility.
Our electrical grid needs improvement. Transmission lines carry electricity long distances but are constantly inching toward the end of their usable lifespans. Unfortunately, the cost of upgrading them is a large-scale investment estimated at trillions of dollars.
Beyond simply being old, the electrical grid is facing several issues. Physical and cyberattacks on substations and other infrastructure are constantly growing threats. We also need to seamlessly integrate emerging renewable energy sources into the electrical grid while working alongside “just-in-time” energy sources like natural gas.
There are many reasons why the electrical grid might fail. When issues arise, it leaves utilities scrambling to turn the lights back on.
Severe weather is a common culprit, from tornadoes and hurricanes that snap power line poles to snow and heavy winds that bring down transmission and distribution lines. Recent data from Climate Central suggests about 83% of reported major outages from 2000-2021 are weather-related.
Extreme weather isn’t the only concern impacting grid resiliency. Excessive heat can cause power lines to sag, just like they did the day of the 2003 blackout. When that happens, arcs may cause faults in the high-voltage lines.
Even something as simple as increased energy usage can cause blackouts.
When solar flares occur, radiation can disrupt electronics like satellites, but coronal mass ejections (CMEs) may be worse. When these electromagnetic disruptions enter the atmosphere, the fluctuations could be powerful enough to blow out transformers.
If transformers are damaged, replacing them can take weeks to months. Transformers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so there usually isn’t an easily accessible stockpile to immediately pull from, and new ones can take months to build and deliver to the site.
The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, raising the risk of potential digital and physical attacks on the electrical grid.
Data from the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center shows physical attacks resulting in outages increased more than 70% since 2021 and were up 20% since 2020. Cybersecurity threats have also become a focal point of utilities, as geopolitical tensions remain high with several countries.
Physical attacks are difficult to avoid, considering many substations are only protected by a chain link fence. The Department of Energy (DOE) noted from January through August of 2022, there were more than 100 attacks or cases of vandalism on the grid, resulting in thousands of customers left in the dark.
Following the 2003 blackout, the United States worked to reduce the damage future blackouts might cause.
Sensors, called phasor measurement units, were installed throughout the electrical grid to watch the magnitude and phase angle of AC voltages or currents along the lines in real-time. The sensors also help utilities understand why outages occur.
Beyond sensors, there was a push to create an electric reliability organization (ERO) to oversee the grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, known as NERC, received the ERO designation for the United States, Canada, and Baja California, Mexico. It can develop and enforce standards, offer training and support to utilities, and investigate outages when they occur to prevent future incidents.
There have also been initiatives to increase overall grid reliability and stability. This includes incorporating smart grids into the electric power system and supporting grid connection requests from renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Utility companies are doing their best to ensure the grid works how it should, but there is always more to do.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report suggesting 70% of transmission and distribution lines were far into the second half of their 50-year usable lifespans. As power lines age, they become less reliable, raising the risk of failures and outages.
Unfortunately, the grid is showing its age. Power outages have grown 64% since the early 2000s. In 2003, when the Northeast Blackout happened, there were 63 reported major electric disturbances and unusual occurrences. Only 17 years later, in 2020, the number spiked to 383.
Unfortunately, more outages mean more downtime.
Energy Information Administration (EIA) data suggests the average American spent more than seven hours without power in 2021, down from more than eight hours in 2020. While most states spent five or fewer hours without power, states like Louisiana, Oregon, and Texas spent far longer in the dark. Residents of Louisiana alone spent more than 80 hours without power in 2021.
Reducing outages is a noble cause, but the electrical grid needs a complete overhaul.
One solution has been to shrink the footprint of grids to reduce the number of people affected by outages. Microgrids are what they sound like; local networks that generate and distribute power on a small scale using traditional fossil fuels or renewables like wind or solar.
During an outage, microgrids can isolate themselves, preventing outages from happening to customers within their defined area.
Wood has been a mainstay of the electrical utility industry for decades. It’s also susceptible to high winds, insect infestations, or rot.
Replacing wooden poles with steel or concrete ones makes them more resilient. As a result, they can withstand stronger winds and harsher environments while avoiding insect damage, moisture, and rot. The main drawback is the price since steel and concrete are more expensive than wooden poles.
Grid hardening means doing what you can to protect power lines and other assets from damage.
Improving grid resiliency goes a long way, for example, trimming trees, burying lines, raising substations, or using new and sustainable elements like composite poles. Even microgrids work toward the goal of strengthening the overall grid.
Grid hardening isn’t a cure-all, but it reduces the risk of outages, including accidental arcing due to trees or downed power lines and poles knocking out electricity.
Improving grid security applies to physical and cyber threats.
Cyber threats can become widespread, crippling large swaths of the grid and knocking out power to millions of customers.
In 2015, Lloyd’s, an insurance underwriter, created a scenario that could cause a blackout impacting 15 states and the District of Columbia. Only 10% of generators would have to be taken offline to cause a blackout affecting more than 90 million people.
But cyber threats are only one problem. More than 170 human-related events were documented during the first eight months of 2022, nearly double the previous two full years (97 and 99 incidents, respectively).
Protecting the grid from physical attacks and vandalism is hard because assets are scattered across the U.S. This includes thousands of power plants, transmission substations, and nearly 160,000 miles of electrical utility lines. The task becomes even more difficult as more renewable energy sources come online.
The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was one of our largest but is only one of many that have occurred in the U.S.
As the grid ages and the weather becomes more extreme, it’s harder to be resilient. That means more outages, vulnerability, and longer wait times.
Investments are needed to improve efficiency and uptime and introduce new energy sources to the grid. It’s also worth noting that the cost to revamp and replace the entire grid is heart-stopping, with estimates ranging from $5T in 2017 to $7T in 2021.
No matter how we look at it, the U.S. electrical grid is at a crossroads. The system is aging, vulnerable, and expansive, putting all of us at risk of potential short- and long-term blackouts. But continuous improvements can lessen the impact of blackouts while improving and strengthening the grid for everyone.
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