The explosion lit up the Manhattan skyline. A sudden boom, a one-two punch of yellow light—then everything went black. After Hurricane Sandy shoved water into Con Edison's 14th Street substation in October, causing electricity to arc between capacitors, about a quarter million customers were left in the dark. Video of the high-voltage spectacle quickly went viral: It became an early, brilliant symbol of the massive storm system's most pervasive and inescapable affront—a total and lingering loss of power. Across the U.S., as far west as Indiana and from Maine to North Carolina, Sandy caused hundreds of other mass outages. A tree blown down, wires ravaged by wind, a flooded power facility—each event had rippled out to affect homes far from the point of failure. The blackouts continued for weeks afterward, thwarting the region's recovery.
While the duration of Sandy's outages was unusual, their breadth—more than eight million homes in 21 states ultimately lost power—has become disturbingly common. In 2011, Hurricane Irene cut electricity to about 5.5 million homes. Tornadoes, ice storms, wildfires, and drought now routinely overwhelm the nation's aging electrical infrastructure, inflicting sweeping blackouts. In the early 1990s, the U.S. experienced about 20 mass outages a year; today it's well over 100. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report attributes much of the rise to an increase in extreme weather events. It also states that storm-related power failures cost the U.S. economy between $20 billion and $55 billion annually.
A century ago, when the foundation of today's power distribution system was laid, electric appliances were just beginning to enter homes. Over time, the nation's power use has skyrocketed, and so has the population. Demand is now rising at 1 percent a year, pushing more electricity through lines that were never intended to handle such high loads. "We sometimes joke that if Alexander Graham Bell woke up tomorrow and saw my phone, he'd be astounded," says David Manning, executive director of the New York State Smart Grid Consortium. "If Thomas Edison woke up tomorrow and saw the grid, he could not only recognize it, he could probably fix it."
A modern grid, capable of creating and delivering efficient, reliable power even in the midst of disaster, is long overdue. Such infrastructure would be more resilient to both storms and terrorist attacks, which the National Research Council warned in November could cripple entire regions of the country for months. Many of the necessary upgrades already exist: They've been developed in labs and demonstrated in smart-grid projects across the country. Other steps just require common sense.
STOP CASCADING FAILURES
East Coast in 2003.The existing U.S. electric grid has a linear structure. Large power plants, typically located far from the customers they serve, produce most of the electricity. Transformers at the plants increase the voltage so it can be moved more efficiently to local substations, which reduce the voltage and send it out to neighborhoods and individual homes. When a fault current, or surge, occurs anywhere along the line, automatic circuit breakers open to halt it. That's why a single felled tree can cut power to thousands of customers. And that's how overgrown trees brushing high-voltage lines in Ohio could black out 50 million people along the
One way to reduce the impact of any individual failure is to replace the linear structure with a looped one. Imagine a power line studded with five smart switches that connects back to a substation on both ends. A tree hits the line. In the old, linear system, all the customers beyond the fault point would lose power; the utility would send out a work crew to search for the cause. In the new system, switches on both sides of the fault could isolate the problem and only customers between the two switches would go dark. Then, "those switches communicate and say, 'It's right here, come and fix me,' " says John Kelly, executive director of the nonprofit Perfect Power Institute.
Communities such as Naperville, Illinois, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, which are among the most advanced in the U.S. when it comes to smart-grid adaptations, have already installed looped systems and demonstrated their advantages. "You're looking at 50 to 80 percent improvements in reliability," Kelly says. Also, "you've limited the problems. You know right where to go, so now you can get those few customers back up quicker."
Another way to stop failures from cascading is to install a fault-current limiter, or what University of Arkansas engineer Alan Mantooth calls a "shock absorber for the grid." He's developing the refrigerator-size device at the university's National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission. "As bad things happen, circuit breakers just start opening and the lights go out," Mantooth says. Rather than simply stopping the electrical surge altogether, his machine can absorb the excess current and send a regulated amount down the line.
Utilities have been slow to adopt looped systems, even though smart switches were developed in the 1990s. Florida Power and Light, whose customers experienced multiple hurricanes in the early 2000s, was among the first to do so. "Most utilities are very averse to change," Kelly says. "And part of it is the monopoly structure that impedes innovation and improvement."
When large-scale change does come, it will likely arrive in high-demand areas first. "In urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles, their fault currents are getting so high that they're having to start replacing all of their circuit breakers," Mantooth says. A fault-current limiter would be a practical solution. "We would insert this guy into the grid," he says, "leave the existing circuit breaker, and limit the current so that the breaker is not overwhelmed." The new equipment helps the old equipment remain in service for longer, a much more cost-effective approach than replacing all the breakers.
While Europe is building a massive Supergrid (much of it with DC lines) for it`s solar, wind and bio energy transports. And while Europe and China keep expanding high speed rail to more cities the US is only lowering investments in roads, energy, rails etc. As the US corps of engineers explains US infrastructure is already greatly underfunded and much of it outdated and in deteriorating state).
Just wait till the budget limit day is reached and real big cuts will start to be made on infrastructure (and much more). Democrats and Republicans will not give each other an inch to decent compromise. It`s like 5 year old's are now running a nation.
The city lost power, because via water breakers tripped. The breakers tripped for good reasons.
If you trip breakers prior to making the situation safe from water, you have a lot of electrified fried circuits and people, so adding power from another source is not helpful, until the initial problem is dealt with and considered safe for electrical power.
For hospitals, fire houses, police stations or other agencies deemed essential, I put emergency power generators on the roof of buildings with the means to run power on its own circuit.
Of course, true electrical engineers might find problems with my solutions and have better solutions of their own.
Your Grid problem in the US is political. This is the sort of massive infrastructure work that can only be done by government but you all seem convinced that would be a 'socialist / communist / muslim' plot! You are your own worst enemy!
Yup, pretty much. Blame the greedy politicians for not getting anything done. I suppose we could go ahead and also blame the citizens for voting them into office. I hope the world is prepared for when a huge solar flare event comes like the one back in 1859. If an event like that one happened today there would be a lot of damage. Many things can be done to prevent damage, but like I said it's all politics, and money too.
Keep in mind that by combining the communication fiber optic builds required for smart grid systems, with the needs of a fiber to the block system such as overlay's Google Kansas city and Chelsea NYC, the cost sharing would make the two dirt cheap. Problem is it would put Big Telecom out of business and they own pretty well all politicians at all levels.
In the ideal US grid all fossil fuel and wind/solar facilities would be replaced with 2500 nuke plants one to every 100K population. Plants would supply offpeak synfuel, desalination, EV charging, and hot water/ice making HVAC systems. By replacing expensive, deadly and sickening, destructive fossil fuels plant the rate of return on the investment to the nation as a whole in a kind of a FDR New Deal would pay back at 40% per annum.
With these smaller grids the loss of transmission lines would be far less critical and whats left would be easy and cheap to engineer.
Unfortunately same problem as with the smart grid. It would put Big Oil/Coal out of business and they own pretty well all politicians and media at all levels.
"A tree blown down, wires ravaged by wind, a flooded power facility—each event had rippled out to affect homes far from the point of failure."
Just cut damn trees 15 feets on each side of each power line.
It was Nikola Tesla who made the grid of today, not Thomas Edison. You would think a science mag like this would get big things like this right!
gotta stop thinking whole cities out of the blocks. start small, then progress. you tube search ore5ssg
It was David Manning - executive director of the Smart Grid Consortium -- who doesn't know his electrical basics. But, PopSci should have caught it.
Not that either Tesla or Edison deeloped the grid. Tesla's AC and transformer technology did enable the grid that we have today.
Side note to the Euros -- there are high voltage DC lines in the US, they've been in place for years.
But to the point of the article. A lot of the NYC problems with Sandy were related to the physical location of certain elements. I think that even PopSci mentioned the need for a 'tougher' grid in some areas. Tougher being one that's more resistant to weather related issues.
As for the smart switches, I'm sure that they're great. I suspect that the reason that the utilities are fighting them is because of cost. The 'loop back ' would seem to mean an additional supply lines for each switch location -- how else are they going to get the power. It can probably be done by just adding a 'bypass' line between each switch (cutting out the impacted area),but it will call for more big beefy supply lines-- which will also have to be maintained. Nothing is free.
I'm somewhat surprised that demand is rising. Our local utility reports that energy saving efforts have been so effective that demand is falling. Maybe we don't have enough hybrid cars.
As touched on by Cookiees453 ,the worst possible thing that could happen to any grid,smart or otherwise,would be another 1859 style Carrington Event,which would not only be very expensive,it could also result in millions of deaths,and make the U.S. a third world power overnight: http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/the-smarter-grid/a-perfect-storm-of-planetary-proportions
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@ford2go. Having some dc lines has zero in common with building a full supergrid with massive large scale next gen AC and DC lines and substations like Europe is doing. As this article explains it would take some 700 billion to upgrade the US grid but the only investment done is 16 billion. Buying a single car wheel is not the same as buying and driving a full car. Not even close.
As an addition to mathew's comment: Edison fought tooth and nail against alternating current. Edison was not a scientist or an engineer, he was a tinkerer. He and Henry Ford got along very well because of that. Ford even work in one of Edison's "labs" before he started building cars. Edison was also a showman, and a callous one at that: