Future Storm Damage To The Grid May Carry Unacceptable Costs
Yesterday I pointed out the extent of tornado damage to the south east, and the effect of that damage on economic activities in effected communities. The absence of electricity effects search and rescue operations as well as recovery efforts. In addition basic services, hospitals, schools may not be able to function, grocery stores are unable to refrigerate produce and meat as well as operate cash registers, service stations may be limited or unable to pump gas. Without refrigeration food will spoil. And in addition to electricity, local telephone systems may be down in many communities. Both land lines and cell phones may be effected.
Without electric and community services, businesses may not be able to operate. Conditions are so bad in parts of Alabama that thousands of families have spontaneously evacuated.
Tornado's can down power lines as well as knock down transmission towers. The Tennessee Valley Authority alone is reporting 70 damaged power lines and damage to 120 metal transmission towers and poles, Over 600,000 homes and businesses that receive electricity from TVA, are currently experiencing outages.
The damage includes a large portion of TVA's 500-kilovolt "network grid backbone" and most of the 161-kv lines serving northern Alabama and Mississippi.
Storm trackers report that tornadoes carved out grown paths of as long as 175 miles during the recent tornado outbreak. Thus one tornado is capable of downing multiple power lines. In addition the switch yard of TVA's northeast Alabama Widows Creek coal-fired plant power plant has received tornado damage and the plant can only transmit limited amounts of electricity.
Eric J. Lerner recently states:
. . . limited use of long-distance connections aided system reliability, because the physical complexities of power transmission rise rapidly as distance and the complexity of interconnections grow. Power in an electric network does not travel along a set path, as coal does, for example. When utility A agrees to send electricity to utility B, utility A increases the amount of power generated while utility B decreases production or has an increased demand. The power then flows from the “source” (A) to the “sink” (B) along all the paths that can connect them. This means that changes in generation and transmission at any point in the system will change loads on generators and transmission lines at every other point—often in ways not anticipated or easily controlled . . .
Thus the expansion of grid systems will increase grid vulnerability to unacceptable electrical outages.
Amory Lovins has long argued that the traditional grid is vulnerable to this sort of damage. Lovins proposed a paradigm shift from centralized to distributed generation and from fossil fuels and nuclear power to renewable based micro-generation. Critics have pointed to flaws in Lovins model. Renewable generation systems are unreliable and their output varies from locality to locality, as well as from day to day, and hour to hour. In order to bring greater stability and predictability to the grid, electrical engineers have proposed expanding the electrical transmission system with thousands of new miles of transmission cables to be added to bring electricity from high wind and high sunshine areas, to consumers. This would lead, if anything, to greater grid vulnerability to storm damage in a high renewable penetration situation.
Thus Lovins renewables/distributed generation model breaks down in the face of renewables limitations. Renewables penetration, will increase the distance between electrical generation facilities and customer homes and businesses, increasing the grid vulnerable to large scale damage, rather than enhancing reliability. Unfortunately Lovins failed to note that the distributed generation model actually worked much better with small nuclear power plants than with renewable generated electricity.
Small nuclear plants could be located much closer to customer's homes, decreasing the probability of storm damage to transmission lines. At the very worst, small NPPs would stop the slide toward increased grid expansion. Small reactors have been proposed as electrical sources for isolated communities that are too remote for grid hookups. If the cost of small reactors can be lowered sufficiently it might be possible for many and perhaps even most communities to unhook from the grid while maintaining a reliable electrical supply.
It is likely that electrical power will play an even more central role in a post-carbon energy era. Increased electrical dependency requires increased electrical reliability, and grid vulnerabilities limit electrical reliability. Storm damage can disrupt electrical service for days and even weeks. In a future, electricity dependent economy, grid damage can actually impede storm recovery efforts, making large scale grid damage semi-self perpetuating. Such grid unreliability becomes a threat to public health and safety. Thus grid reliability will be a more pressing future issue, than it has been. It is clear that renewable energy sources will worsen grid reliability,
Some renewable advocates have suggested that the so called "smart grid" will prevent grid outages. Yet the grid will never be smart enough to repair its own damaged power lines. In addition the "smart grid" will be venerable to hackers, and would be a handy target to statures. A smart grid would be an easy target for a Stuxnet type virus attack.
Not only does the "smart grid" not solve the problem posed by grid vulnerability to storm damage, but efficiency, another energy approach thought to be a panacea for electrical supply problems would be equally useless. Thus, decentralized electrical generation through the use of small nuclear power plants offers real potential for increasing electrical reliability, but successful use of renewable electrical generation approaches may worsen rather than improved grid reliability.
Photo by USEPA.
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