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Marketplace

A call to invest in safety of the power grid

Scott Tong Apr 21, 2015
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The first federal report card on our energy infrastructure is out today. It calls for more than $8 billion in power grid safety and upgrading.

The power grid is vulnerable in a couple of ways, the report says. One is increasingly unpredictable weather, and thus, blackouts. Every year, the average New Englander loses power for three and a half hours. The average person in Japan: four minutes.

Threat two is physical attacks on key pieces of the grid, like high-voltage transformers. Engineering professor Massoud Amin at the University of Minnesota calls these transformers “critical nodes” that change voltage at key junctions. They’re indispensable — and they’re barely made in America.

“Post 9-11, we did not have manufacturing capability to manufacture them,” Amin says. “If they are taken out, the recovery time to actually build, deliver, retrofit and install it was somewhere between six months to two years.”

Today’s report proposes a strategic transformer reserve to stockpile extra for emergencies, like we have for crude oil. 

Two years ago, one transformer site in California was attacked by snipers. “This was a well-trained group that had sophisticated weaponry, shooting at a very critical part of the power grid,” says Peter Fox-Penner, principal of the Brattle Group consultancy and senior policy scholar at Georgetown University.

The lights stayed on, thanks to redundancies. “The real fear is that terrorists would target several transformers at once,” Fox-Penner says, “really damage them so they couldn’t be repaired.”

One internal government analysis reportedly found that taking out nine key transformer sites could black out the entire country. Fox-Penner says eventually the grid may decentralize and become less vulnerable to hardware threats. But that would take a generation.

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