Blackouts cost money, lots of money. There are many causes of grid failure, and usually major grid failures over a large region are caused by a series of failures and mishaps. The grid is designed for redundancy but not for a domino-effect series of seemingly unrelated failures like that of August 14, 2003.
Some typical causes of power grid failures are faults at power stations, overloading mains, short circuits, damage to transmission lines or other power equipment, and weather problems, to mention a few.
The US Department of Energy (DoE) recently released a new report that outlined how to protect the US electric grid from power outages caused by natural disasters.
The “Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages” report focuses on the impact of power outages caused by severe weather between 2003 and 2012 Here is a short summary of the findings:
- Weather-related outages are estimated to have cost the US economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion.
- Roughly 679 power outages, each affecting at least 50,000 customers, occurred due to weather events. The aging grid — much of which was constructed over more than a century — has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather.
- In 2012, the United States suffered 11 billion-dollar weather disasters – the second-most for any year on record, behind only 2011.
- Since 1980, the United States has sustained 144 weather disasters whose damage cost reached or exceeded $1 billion, and seven of the 10 costliest storms in US history occurred between 2004 and 2012.
The report discusses strategies for modernizing the grid to better prevent power outages. These strategies include:
- Conducting exercises to identify and lower the potential impacts of hazards to the grid
- Working with utilities to strengthen their infrastructure against wind and flood damage
- Increasing overall system flexibility and robustness of the grid
- Supporting implementation of modern technologies that can quickly alert utilities when consumers experience a power outage or there is a system disruption, and automatically reroute power to avoid further outages
These strategies are designed to build on current initiatives, including the President's “Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid,” which set out a four-pronged strategy for modernizing the grid and directed billions of dollars toward investments in 21st century smart grid technologies. US investments have begun to increase the resilience and reliability of the grid in the face of severe weather. (Learn more at www.smartgrid.gov.)
Electrical power failure is not a new phenomenon. Massive power failures have occurred throughout the United States and the world. The heavy dependence of modern infrastructure on electricity can lead to public health effects as well as other services affected when power is lost.
Let's look at the NYC blackout on August 14, 2003. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) environmental section contacted the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to determine if the city's drinking water supply was safe for drinking. Because the city's potable water system was constructed such that gravity alone can maintain water pressure, there was no loss of pressure during the blackout, and therefore no additional risk of contamination.
Other cities may not have this type of system, and their water supplies may be vulnerable during a blackout. Microbial monitoring of potable water must be done during a blackout. Residents of high-rise apartment buildings depend on electrical pumps to raise potable water from street level to their homes. With the loss of power, these residents could be left without ready access to potable water for several days.
This blackout affected a substantial area of the Northeast United States, including all five boroughs of New York City. Although power was returned to the majority of the city by the evening of Saturday, August 16, DOHMH encountered several issues during its response to the emergency: failure of hospital emergency generators, large numbers of patients dependent on electrically powered medical equipment, and contamination of recreational waterways.
DOHMH anticipated other potential problems, including spoilage of perishable foods, which could potentially result in foodborne disease, and pest-control issues and vaccine spoilage. An increased incidence of gastrointestinal disease was detected in New York City following the blackout. While responding to the blackout and resulting public health impacts, DOHMH had to be able to maintain other important routine functions, such as its burial desk, poison control call center, West Nile pesticide spraying activities, and 24-hour mental health referral hotline.
New York City was previously affected by citywide blackouts in 1965 and 1977. DOHMH monitored blood banks for the potential spoilage of banked blood because approximately one-third of the blood banks did not have emergency generators. Surprisingly, 37 percent of New York City hospitals did not have emergency generators. One of the action items implemented in response to the 1965 blackout was to have standby crews with 55kW mobile generators to reduce the time required to provide auxiliary power to police and other agencies.
The blackout of July 13-14, 1977, saw a marked rise in criminal activity. During the 26.5 hours of the blackout, 3,418 persons were arrested, primarily for looting.
Many people are not just inconvenienced by a blackout, but their lives and health may suffer from such an event. There are many agencies that are working on ways to improve our power monitoring system to predict and prevent future grid blackouts.
Check out one company's possible solution to helping predict and prevent a major power grid blackout in this article on EDN. Please give your comments and ideas to our EDN and Planet Analog readers.