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US Electrical Grid On the Edge of Failure

Soulskill posted about a year ago | from the but-investing-in-infrastructure-isn't-sexy dept.

Power 293

ananyo writes "Facebook can lose a few users and remain a perfectly stable network, but where the national grid is concerned, simple geography dictates that it is always just a few transmission lines from collapse, according to a mathematical study of spatial networks. The upshot of the study is that spatial networks are necessarily dependent on any number of critical nodes whose failure can lead to abrupt — and unpredictable — collapse. The warning comes ten years after a blackout that crippled parts of the midwest and northeastern United States and parts of Canada. In that case, a series of errors resulted in the loss of three transmission lines in Ohio over the course of about an hour. Once the third line went down, the outage cascaded towards the coast, cutting power to some 50 million people. The authors say that this outage is an example of the inherent instability the study describes. But others question whether the team's conclusions can really be extrapolated to the real world. 'The problem is that this doesn't reflect the physics of how the power grid operates,' says Jeff Dagle, an electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, who served on the government task force that investigated the 2003 outage."

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293 comments

Wrong analogy (5, Insightful)

halexists (2587109) | about a year ago | (#44695213)

So facebook could probably lose a few servers is probably the more apt analogy, yes?

Re:Wrong analogy (4, Funny)

kannibal_klown (531544) | about a year ago | (#44695223)

No, it needs to involve cars. All analogies, especially those pertaining to something technical, must always be reduced to cars.

Re:Wrong analogy (5, Funny)

halexists (2587109) | about a year ago | (#44695241)

No, it needs to involve cars. All analogies, especially those pertaining to something technical, must always be reduced to cars.

You're right, you're right... my mistake! "Facebook could probably lose a few gas stations and remain a perfectly stable network..."

Re:Wrong analogy (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695267)

My subject matter *is* cars, you insensitive clod!

Re:Wrong analogy (4, Informative)

msauve (701917) | about a year ago | (#44695311)

The goal for a good analogy should always be to score points and win the game.

Re: Wrong analogy (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695359)

damn
i just lost the game

Re: Wrong analogy (0)

oPless (63249) | about a year ago | (#44695609)

Damn.

So did I.

More importantly, dear reader, so have YOU

Re: Wrong analogy (1)

Andreas . (2995185) | about a year ago | (#44695945)

Well THANKS! Now I lost it, too

Re:Wrong analogy (1, Funny)

FuzzNugget (2840687) | about a year ago | (#44695745)

I thought it was to get +5 Insightful. Achievement Unlocked!

Re:Wrong analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695425)

Hmmm... a car could lose 25% of its wheels and remain a perfectly stable vehicle?

Re:Wrong analogy (1)

mrclisdue (1321513) | about a year ago | (#44695497)

Citroens of the 70's were *known* for this ability - not sure now, because I now know nothing. I could google, but y'know....

Citroen, Facebook Edition, heeyaaaaaa

Re:Wrong analogy (4, Informative)

Joce640k (829181) | about a year ago | (#44695661)

That's what every Citroen salesman used to parrot, yes.

And it's true! (for some models with self-levelling suspension)

eg. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HK2nTRvm_s [youtube.com]

Re:Wrong analogy (1)

Megane (129182) | about a year ago | (#44695925)

How about this: it's rush hour, and everybody is bumper to bumper. But they're still somehow managing to go 30 MPH. Then a squirrel runs across the road in front of a blonde driver. LIKE OHMIGOD! She hits the brakes, and causes a 100-car pile-up accident.

Re:Wrong analogy (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695253)

Haha yea exactly. That's the like the power grid losing a few houses.

Either way, I lived through the blackout... it was actually really fun. Block parties everywhere and biking around downtown in the dark. Great experience.

Re:Wrong analogy (5, Interesting)

tippe (1136385) | about a year ago | (#44695413)

I was thinking the same thing. I felt a little shafted, to be honest, during the 2003 blackout. In my area (Southern Ontario) power was restored quite early, before 11:00pm IIRC. I wish that it had lasted a bit longer so that I could appreciate the beautiful night sky a little longer. You don't often see the milky way within city limits... I almost wish they regularly scheduled these sorts of blackouts. It wouldn't hurt us to be reminded once in a while that the centre of the universe is somewhere above our heads, and not in the middle of the city where we live...

Re:Wrong analogy (5, Insightful)

Cardcaptor_RLH85 (891550) | about a year ago | (#44695735)

Strictly speaking, the center of the observable universe is wherever the observer happens to be at that moment.

Re:Wrong analogy (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about a year ago | (#44696003)

Strictly speaking, the center of the observable universe has no correlation to the actual center of the actual universe - presuming such a thing exists.

Re:Wrong analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695757)

The power company would like nothing better then that, the reason is the can make more money when your house/home/apt/ whatever, powers backup.

If I remember right there is a tremendous power surge or spike in starting up the power to your home/business yap yap, (you get the idea) and that draws a lot more usage. Not to mention when you turn everything back on (even if it has a standby which in itself uses 60-70% power). I cant remember and I had a citation on this but lost it, it was a really respected site too, not just a happenstance web site.

I think the report only points out what some already know the infrastructure of the country (US) is terrible and not getting any better with these moron Republicans playing russian roulette with budget cuts Just to spite the Democrats, the Democrats would be doing the same so I am not just pointing out the idiocy of one party. And its how these cuts are being implemented.

I leave in a rural area but the surrounding kills are cities, and then we have to deal with neighbors yard lights, and the street lights, and when we do get a power outage, usually from a storm and what not, it is to cloudy to see anything!!! A little aggravating not to see a clear night sky in pitch black..

Re:Wrong analogy (5, Funny)

Somebody Is Using My (985418) | about a year ago | (#44695839)

Try living through a blackout when your home is on the upper floors of a TALL (30+ stories) apartment building. Walking up those stairs after a long work day (and an even longer commute) on a hot summer day was /not/ a fun experience. In the dark, no less. Emergency generators for the elevators were, apparently, too much of an expense. And those batteries in the emergency lighting fixtures only last a few hours...

And I couldn't even get online to bitch about it once I got home! I mean, really; it was like living in the 20th century!

Re:Wrong analogy (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695577)

Shouldn't this grid problem be good news for all you global warming worshipers? You can put your money where your ignorance is and NOT use power, yey!

Re:Wrong analogy (1)

rtaylor (70602) | about a year ago | (#44695861)

The fibre backhaul between data-centers being cut is a better analogy.

Sections of power plants (most have multiple generators, etc.) are taken offline frequently for maintenance.

Re:Wrong analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695977)

So in the future, only Apples servers that run on solar power will be running and all the others dark...lol

Smart, very smart!

Coincidentally... (1, Insightful)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about a year ago | (#44695243)

...I was talking to someone on a forum about a hot-air rework station he bought. It's basically a glorified hair-dryer. Every time he turns it on the lights flicker, and then they dim periodically as the heater turns on/off.

American house wiring seems to be terrible. There also seem to be a lot of barriers to setting up solar feed-in systems. The concept of a smart grid is unheard of.

Re:Coincidentally... (4, Informative)

cdrudge (68377) | about a year ago | (#44695305)

American house wiring seems to be terrible.

Based off of a sample size of 1. Nice generalization.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695689)

Most important sample size.

Re:Coincidentally... (4, Funny)

xenobyte (446878) | about a year ago | (#44695693)

Based off of a sample size of 1. Nice generalization.

Hey! That's one better than some of the climate change theories!

Re:Coincidentally... (2)

bickerdyke (670000) | about a year ago | (#44695849)

(I know this was meant as a troll/joke but you're hitting the nail)

No. They have the sample size of "1 earth". Exactly "1 earth". Of course that's due to the lack of spare earths that we could compare ours too. But it is exactly what makes this whole subject statistically "challenging".

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695999)

FWIW, Venus and Mars are the other 2 samples we have

Re:Coincidentally... (2)

dkf (304284) | about a year ago | (#44695949)

American house wiring seems to be terrible.

Based off of a sample size of 1. Nice generalization.

Well, I've observed the problem at multiple locations in the US and none in the EU. Still anecdotal, but a quick bayesian analysis does indicate that assuming that there's some kind of issue in the US. I've also had it described to me as being due to the use of different wiring methodologies, but couldn't verify that from personal knowledge. I suppose the effect could be relatively amplified due to the lower voltage and consequently larger currents involved, which would make any resistive load in the wiring have a disproportionately larger effect.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about a year ago | (#44695309)

American house wiring runs on 110V, which is low enough for voltage drop to be a serious issue.

The same thing happens in EU house wiring too, but only with very, very high-power appliances like power showers.

Re:Coincidentally... (5, Informative)

khallow (566160) | about a year ago | (#44695393)

American house wiring runs on 110V, which is low enough for voltage drop to be a serious issue.

Any voltage is low enough for voltage drop to be a serious issue.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

Yebyen (59663) | about a year ago | (#44695563)

OK, but for plenty of devices, isn't it more true that the actual amount of power delivered is more important?

For instance: I got one of these newfangled bitcoin miners that someone with a similar name to one of the company officials (this is where you get your help, I know right?) says draws about 27w on average. He says it peaks at about 35w and you should make sure your wall-wart budgets close to 40w in case of internal losses that weren't measured.

The wall-wart they send is a 13VDC-6A which is of course 78w, only I bought two and only one power cord from the batch actually works.

I found that my laptop has a power supply that provides 19V-3.42A (65w) and it works fine, anecdotal. I am not an electrician, I am just an amateur physicist who knows P=iv, and I've been advised that the devices are rated for up to 40V but to run with that high of voltage long-term may cause some harm. But 19V should be fine. I've been advised. By someone who talked to the engineer, at least. The bad wall-wart was providing an unstable 17V (I haven't opened it up because I wouldn't know what I was looking at, but I'd assume there's something wrong inside.)

So, explain yourself please, with a car analogy if you want, when I can go between 19V to 13V on some devices with no problems seemingly as long as adequate power is supplied, how can it be that any voltage is low enough for voltage drop to be a serious issue?

Re: Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695615)

Computers have internal voltage regulators that allow them to operate on a range of input voltages.

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695723)

Because he's wrong. Voltage drop occurs because the wiring is shit from cheap ass builders. I lived in a building that was built in the 80s possibly 70s. Lights never dimmed when the dryer or washing machine started up.

Contrast this to the current condo I'm renting built in the early 2000s. Lights flicker when the dryer starts up. Every time.

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695585)

The issue has more to do with builders being cheap and lazy so they try to put as many lights and outlets as possible on a single circuit. Some old houses can be real bad, I had a friend whose ranch home built in the 1950's turned out to have nearly every room on the ground floor going back to the same breaker, we discovered that when his sister plugged in a vacuum cleaner and plunged us into darkness despite being on the other end of the house.

Re:Coincidentally... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695325)

Solar panels is un-American.
Try to set up a gas-driven backup generator first. You will get tons of support and advice. Then try to add some solar panels "to help a bit when it is running over capacity"
Then you might be allowed to sneak over to full solar as long as the gas-driven generator is clearly visible.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

mrclisdue (1321513) | about a year ago | (#44695531)

Hey, I mine my own coal and use a coal-powered steam generator to refine oil to gasoline, then I use the gas-driven generator to power my flashlight, which directs a beam at my solar panel, which boosts the volume on my crystal radio. If I drop acid, the tinny sound seems stereo-ish.

I hope to win a ribbon at the science fair.

cheers,

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695741)

http://www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/london/german-coal-fired-power-rises-above-50-in-first-26089429

The U.S. produces 40% of its power from coal, and that figure it dropping like a rock.

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695785)

Solar panels is un-American.

Why are all these high school dropouts visiting a nerd site??

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695329)

American house wiring seems to be terrible

With a sample size of one, how can you go wrong?

There also seem to be a lot of barriers to setting up solar feed-in systems

Like not enough sunlight in many parts of the country, high capital cost, maintenance costs, etc. Reality is a bitch.

The concept of a smart grid is unheard of

Highly experimental. Not exactly the stuff you want to use daily. And given the lax security of most SCADA systems, I don't think you really want it.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695443)

If there is enough sunlight in Germany and the Netherlands then there is enough sun in the whole of the U.S.A. except maybe for Alaska, and I said maybe.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

Bigby (659157) | about a year ago | (#44695553)

Is there really enough sun? Is the TCO of those, including cost of subsidies, really outweighing how much electricity could have been produced by power plant? I am going wager "not even close", considering much sunnier non-American non-oil countries aren't actively pursuing solar panels. Including Italy to the south.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

bobstreo (1320787) | about a year ago | (#44695721)

If there is enough sunlight in Germany and the Netherlands then there is enough sun in the whole of the U.S.A. except maybe for Alaska, and I said maybe.

What about wind power?

Re:Coincidentally... (5, Informative)

taiwanjohn (103839) | about a year ago | (#44695595)

not enough sunlight in many parts of the country

Actually most of the USA gets more sun than Germany [wikipedia.org] but they are building out their solar capacity at record speed. [thinkprogress.org]

high capital cost, maintenance costs, etc

In case you missed it, the price of solar cells has fallen off a cliff in the last few years. And some companies [solarcity.com] will install the system for no money down, then sell you electricity at a rate lower than the utility.

Re:Coincidentally... (1, Interesting)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year ago | (#44695773)

In case YOU missed it, Germans with their record breaking solar and wind production pay over twice as much for electricity as the average American. The record they are also breaking is how well they can spin their inefficiency to make their policies look efficient.

German Efficiency, even more of a myth than ever before.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

serviscope_minor (664417) | about a year ago | (#44695363)

a hot-air rework station he bought. It's basically a glorified hair-dryer.

Yep, my hairdryer goes up to 300 degrees celcius.

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695421)

But does it go up to 11?

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

bickerdyke (670000) | about a year ago | (#44695663)

Then it's not worth glorifying it.

Re:Coincidentally... (0)

khallow (566160) | about a year ago | (#44695419)

The concept of a smart grid is unheard of.

Nor needed. It's remarkable how people think every minor advance in technology will yield large dividends. Delivering electricity to a wall socket is just not that hard a problem to where a "smart" system is going to do a lot better than a "dumb" system.

Re:Coincidentally... (4, Insightful)

bickerdyke (670000) | about a year ago | (#44695681)

Delivering electricity to a socket isn't hard.

Delivering electricity at constant voltage and frequency is already hard.

Delivering electricity at constant voltage and frequency in a grid where a few wandering clouds and a gust of wind create production spikes is definitly hard.

Re:Coincidentally... (4, Interesting)

Shoten (260439) | about a year ago | (#44695847)

Delivering electricity to a socket isn't hard.

Delivering electricity at constant voltage and frequency is already hard.

Delivering electricity at constant voltage and frequency in a grid where a few wandering clouds and a gust of wind create production spikes is definitly hard.

You missed two other factors...

Delivering electricity at constant voltage and frequency in a grid where a few wandering clouds and a gust of wind create *unpredictable* production spikes and drops, and where the source of some of the generation assets is hundreds of miles from the distribution points it needs to get to, is hard.

Lots of people like to talk about how much sun the US gets, and how much space there is to put up wind farms. But they don't realize a few things. One, the best places for PV farms and wind farms are far, far from population centers...and that means that utilities have to figure out how to manage VARS over those distances which is still not a problem that's entirely been solved. T. Boone Pickens had to bail on his whole wind farm venture in the Southeast because of this. And two, while the cost of PV panels (as would be put on the roof of a home of business) has dropped significantly, the majority of the cost of an on-premise solar installation is the anti-islanding gear that ensures the safety of any linemen who show up to deal with a power outage, assuming that only the end of the break in a line that leads back to the rest of the larger grid is live. And the cost of that gear has not changed much at all.

Re:Coincidentally... (1)

bad-badtz-maru (119524) | about a year ago | (#44695603)

A mere 3 volt drop on a 120v circuit will cause visible light flicker. And house wiring is not the only possible cause.

The US is just a pro-gay version of Russia (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695275)

Sham Democracy, decrepit infrastructure, crime and drugs everywhere, huge economic inequality, constantly meddling in other nations affairs...

You clearly don't live in Raleigh (1)

gelfling (6534) | about a year ago | (#44695295)

The capital city of the 9th or 10th largest state. If the wind blows or the rain falls or someone somewhere drives a car and gently brushes a power pole, the power goes out. And our wonderful power company rarely if even even acknowledges there is a power problem and all their lines are busy etc etc etc But thank the lord they pretty much get 8% rate hikes every year.

Re:You clearly don't live in Raleigh (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695319)

Don't forget drunks climbing into the substations.

Re: You clearly don't live in Raleigh (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695379)

pics/video or it didn't happen

Re:You clearly don't live in Raleigh (1)

TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) | about a year ago | (#44695449)

That happens everywhere my friend. I think the same story can be told in every major city in North America. If a cloud passes over my neighborhood the power goes off proactively, and I live in the capital of Canada! I never bother to set the clock on my microwave anymore because it never says set. I have gotten used to seeing flashing 12:00 everywhere. I wish manufacturers would stop building useless clocks into every kitchen appliances these days. I wish they could invent a power system that wasn't made out of matchsticks and twine.

The story of the 2003 blackout (4, Interesting)

dkleinsc (563838) | about a year ago | (#44695315)

Basically, the problem can be almost entirely blamed on FirstEnergy of Ohio. They had, in a matter of hours:
- A software bug in the monitoring tool.
- No backup monitoring, so when the first one wasn't started properly there was no way of knowing there was a problem.
- A plant shutdown due to poor maintenance.
- Multiple power lines failures due to not cutting back trees as they were supposed to.
- Alarm systems breaking, that were simply ignored.
- Utterly failing to notify nearby states that there was a problem so they could prevent it from spreading.

You'll notice that almost all of these problems would not have happened had they not cut corners wherever they thought they could get away with it. And if the US electric grid is in trouble, I'd have every reason to expect that it was other electric companies doing the same sort of thing.

Can we get Morgan Freeman [wikipedia.org] on the case?

Re:The story of the 2003 blackout (1)

NJRoadfan (1254248) | about a year ago | (#44695459)

FirstEnergy is the same group of folks who run JCP&L here in New Jersey. You can ask their customers how competent they were after TS Irene, the freak October 2011 snow storm and Sandy.

Re:The story of the 2003 blackout (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695505)

Basically, the problem can be almost entirely blamed on FirstEnergy of Ohio. They had, in a matter of hours:
- A software bug in the monitoring tool.
- No backup monitoring, so when the first one wasn't started properly there was no way of knowing there was a problem.
- A plant shutdown due to poor maintenance.
- Multiple power lines failures due to not cutting back trees as they were supposed to.
- Alarm systems breaking, that were simply ignored.
- Utterly failing to notify nearby states that there was a problem so they could prevent it from spreading.

You'll notice that almost all of these problems would not have happened had they not cut corners wherever they thought they could get away with it. And if the US electric grid is in trouble, I'd have every reason to expect that it was other electric companies doing the same sort of thing.

Can we get Morgan Freeman [wikipedia.org] on the case?

The problem is indeed that every company has the same practices. Why do you think it spread so rapidly outside of the FirstEnergy service area? If anything, the organizing body (Midwest ISO) should shoulder at least half of the blame since they exist _solely_ to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

Re:The story of the 2003 blackout (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695619)

You'll notice that almost all of these problems would not have happened had they not cut corners wherever they thought they could get away with it.

Exactly, like most problems in the US it all comes down to greed. The CEO(s) want to be paid tens of millions of dollars a year so there is no money left for maintaining or expanding the infrastructure.

Re:The story of the 2003 blackout (4, Interesting)

dj245 (732906) | about a year ago | (#44695657)

Basically, the problem can be almost entirely blamed on FirstEnergy of Ohio. They had, in a matter of hours: - A software bug in the monitoring tool. - No backup monitoring, so when the first one wasn't started properly there was no way of knowing there was a problem. - A plant shutdown due to poor maintenance. - Multiple power lines failures due to not cutting back trees as they were supposed to. - Alarm systems breaking, that were simply ignored. - Utterly failing to notify nearby states that there was a problem so they could prevent it from spreading.

You'll notice that almost all of these problems would not have happened had they not cut corners wherever they thought they could get away with it. And if the US electric grid is in trouble, I'd have every reason to expect that it was other electric companies doing the same sort of thing.

Can we get Morgan Freeman [wikipedia.org] on the case?

I can tell you that the industry has really taken this event to heart and learned from it. The linked articles are based on some awfully shoddy conclusions- the scientific article is about interconnected networks in a theoretical sense, and not one of the references has anything to do with the electrical grid. The other link is from "somebody" making conclusions about the power grid based on the scientific article. The grid today is not the same grid we had in 2003. For the last 10 years, NERC [nerc.com] has been throwing down standards and requirements for electrical production and distribution based on the lessons learned in 2003. NERC's website may make them seem like "recommendations", but for many parts of the country, an power station or transmission company must follow their standards if they wish to do business.

A failure of the type experienced in 2003 is unlikely to happen. Even if a company such as FirstEnergy makes colossal screwups, rules are in place which make the other parts of the grid more robust to that kind of problem. The chance of a large-scale blackout is reduced in the last 10 years (as opposed to the articles arguments that it is the same, or greater than ever before).

Think about it. Unless you live on the end of a low-population road, your electricity is probably more reliable than any other service you have. The average electric customer in the US loses service for about 8 hours a year. That is 99.9% reliability. The average Japanese electric customer has 5 minutes of outage per year. That 99.999% reliability sounds great, but those extra 9's cost them dearly. The average TEPCO customer pays about 26-32 cents per KWH. My cost in Connecticut is about 8 cents per KWH. I don't want to pay 3-4 times as much for electricity just to have five 9 reliability. Do you?

the greate outage of 2003 (1)

StewBaby2005 (883886) | about a year ago | (#44695321)

I remember it vividly, I was leaving SE Michigan to drive to my home the upper part of lower Michigan. By sheer luck, my home was outside the area affected. Help my decision to work from home permanently.

Re:the greate outage of 2003 (1)

kannibal_klown (531544) | about a year ago | (#44695399)

Fortunately my grid somehow survived most of the 2003 outage... we lost power for maybe 30-60 minutes. Meanwhile, a 20 minute drive to the east or the north were without power for the day or whatever... which stunk because it was hot.

So we lucked out there; a nice little peninsula of electricity.

Unfortunately, in the last 2 years we had 2 major storms: Sandy and a freak snow storm. Both of those times took out my town's power for a week each.

Inherently unstable (5, Informative)

Ateocinico (32734) | about a year ago | (#44695347)

As every electrical engineer knows, an AC transmission system is a quadratic-complex system. And in the sense of both the inherent complexity and the complex numbers involved. There is no energy storage in the system (no inertia), has noticeable delays, and it is tightly coupled. Only high redundancy and decoupling can make the system more reliable. But that is costly. Who wants to pay more?

Re:Inherently unstable (4, Interesting)

jeffmeden (135043) | about a year ago | (#44695547)

As every electrical engineer knows, an AC transmission system is a quadratic-complex system. And in the sense of both the inherent complexity and the complex numbers involved. There is no energy storage in the system (no inertia), has noticeable delays, and it is tightly coupled. Only high redundancy and decoupling can make the system more reliable. But that is costly. Who wants to pay more?

The challenge is balancing the system's ability to self-heal with the system's ability to self-destruct. There is no reason that losing 3 transmission lines (out of a dozen running through the corridor) should have done anything more than taken three lines worth of subscriber capacity offline. If the system "let them go dark" there wouldn't have been a cascading failure. Instead, in an attempt to self heal (something that works great for just one or two lines going down) the system self destructed instead. Identifying where the tipping point is and acting before it is reached is the only real barrier to preventing such a large problem from happening again. Shame it's taken 10 years to really understand the problem.

Re:Inherently unstable (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695699)

Lack of imagination, and intelligence. Its no wonder why our civilization keeps moving to our own extinction.

I know most of you don't live where I do... (4, Informative)

neorush (1103917) | about a year ago | (#44695395)

....but we are used to regular power outages here in Upstate New York. We lose it for several hours monthly and have an automatic backup generator for these purposes. We have a Gas stove, wood fireplace, and oil lamps so even without the generator it would just be darker and the internet would not work. My point is, the northeast blackout proved just how unprepared most Americans are for a power outage. I understand the technical challenges of living on the 30th story of a building are much greater than for my house in the middle of no where, but there are some basic things you can do to function for a few days without power if need be.

Re:I know most of you don't live where I do... (1)

kannibal_klown (531544) | about a year ago | (#44695521)

Agreed... I'm usually set quite well up for minor power outages. In my old house we used to lose power a lot because of company a block away kept blowing the lines. It was always for like ~15 minutes a week. So combined with being used to going camping I'd make sure I was prepared for a day or two of no power.

BUT... I hadn't really prepared for being without power for a week... which happened twice in two years due to storms.

On a personal level it was just mildly annoying since I had tons of warm clothes, some candles, batteries for flashlights, canned food, and my natural-gas still worked for hot showers and cooking. So it was just annoying.

But on a macro-level, it REALLY stunk because gas stations ran dry and stores also had no power. I hadn't prepared for THAT. So as the week went on and my gas tank started to run low I was getting concerned since I worked 20 miles away. But I eventually made a trek with my last quarter-tank to the neighboring state and filled up there.

Re:I know most of you don't live where I do... (1)

hrvatska (790627) | about a year ago | (#44695589)

I live in upstate NY, in the Finger Lakes region. Our power is pretty reliable. There are outages, but nothing like a couple of hours monthly. Two or three times per year we lose power briefly. We lost power for several hours once in the last year. All of our power outages seem to happen during high wind events that cause trees to fall on power lines.

Re:I know most of you don't live where I do... (1)

Telvin_3d (855514) | about a year ago | (#44695797)

Most Americans should be basically unprepared for regular or severe power outages. If the basic utilities are failing enough that it's accepted as a regular thing, shouldn't you be up in arms?

Re:I know most of you don't live where I do... (1)

Beorytis (1014777) | about a year ago | (#44695877)

I understand the technical challenges of living on the 30th story of a building are much greater than for my house in the middle of no where...

I would have thought the opposite. A 30 story building can get by with a central standby generator (or central battery/inverter) serving all tenants/condo owners, etc., but there's a greater psychological challenge in that extended outages are rare enough that the money spent installing and maintaining the system seems a waste until it's needed.

And thats why... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695405)

we need to stop terrorists from entering our country... now bend back while i search for drugs on your colon.

your local CEO doesn't give a fuck (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695431)

Until you can make this an actual problem in the mind of the stupid fucking corporate class nothing will be done.

And they will blame it on (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695457)

Syrian Electronic Army

So how long until... (0)

Pollux (102520) | about a year ago | (#44695463)

How long until the US Government censors this paper in the interests of national security?

Or how long until a commentator on Fox News calls the authors terrorists?

Re:So how long until... (1)

AHuxley (892839) | about a year ago | (#44695865)

Shareholder value could drop if people work out the next Enron too early?
National security could be pulled for the power or cooling water needs of new regional NSA sites?
The US grid seems to be well maintained, well thought out for the big power needs for large scale cold war production and now select tourist sites.
Long term what was build generations ago and patched up with a view on shareholder return will have to be thought about as populations shift and energy needs change again.
Smart meters and per device shut off for discounts could be interesting at a local level.
Solar FIT or NET payments could be reduced with the need for costly home engineering reports or state energy laws.
So yes expect some data to go dark just due to the pure embarrassment factor.

American infrastructure is old and decrepit (0, Flamebait)

gatkinso (15975) | about a year ago | (#44695471)

The reason for this is it wasn't utterly destroyed in WW2.

You Eurotrash like your fancy relatively modern infrastructure? The Marshall Plan called from 1948 to say you're welcome.

Re:American infrastructure is old and decrepit (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695729)

The Swiss would like to greet another War-Untouched country, and demonstrate some modern infrastructure.

Re:American infrastructure is old and decrepit (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695989)

Sweden, reporting in. In practice there are quite few countries where GP's assertion is even relevant (Germany is a given, but otherwise it's at most partial destruction).

So, GP is perhaps "informative" as the post is currently modded; just too bad the information in this case does not hold water.

Re:American infrastructure is old and decrepit (1)

Iconoclasism (1660709) | about a year ago | (#44695837)

This sort of rhetoric only kind of works if those countries have failed to update their electrical grids since then; even so, that was 65 years ago and you should probably get over it. The US not updating its own infrastructure is simply inexcusable.

'extrapolated to the real world' (1)

drainbramage (588291) | about a year ago | (#44695479)

Oh, I see.
An outage that involved 'the midwest and northeastern United States and parts of Canada...cutting power to some 50 million people' WOULD be very hard to extrapolate to the real world.
Thank you, I thought otherwise on first glance.

Re:'extrapolated to the real world' (3, Interesting)

PhamNguyen (2695929) | about a year ago | (#44695515)

I could model power outages like dominoes, and my model would also predict that the power system was very unstable, but my model would not actually reflect the "real world physics".

Re:'extrapolated to the real world' (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695659)

I could model power outages like dominoes, and my model would also predict that the power system was very unstable, but my model would not actually reflect the "real world physics".

Using your model, I found that a little bit of glue would do wonders to stabilize the grid.

No worries. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695489)

Obamycare will fix it!

Suck It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695549)

Sincerely,
Texas

Re:Suck It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695581)

ERCOT works, but it probably is one poke from a good blackhat away from destruction...

Re:Suck It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695737)

ERCOT works, as long as nobody wants to turn on their airconditioner in the summer.

Nobody wants to be the guy to build a multimillion dollar power plant just for that one air conditioner so we're expecting our "deregulator" to "deregulate" yet another fee onto the bill so we can all pay for our power masters to ever so kindly build a plant so shit works in the summer.

Predictions: the fee is collected and distributed to the power generators, who say thanks, award it to their CEOs as a bonus, and give us power brownouts until we agree to double it.

Wardenclyffe Tower (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695557)

Gee, it seems like J.P.Morgan should of gone with Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower after all. Free wireless power and communications is a wonderful idea.

Re:Wardenclyffe Tower (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695893)

I'm guessing this is posted as a joke. Sadly there are many out there who won't realize that and think that Wardenclyffe is a viable solution to needs of today's consumers. They'll claim that The Man(tm) stopped Tesla from bringing us about to a new age of science and technology and that it was dastardly villians like Edison and JP Morgan who have halted human progress.
 
The cult of Telsa strikes again!

Yup... (4, Funny)

Greyfox (87712) | about a year ago | (#44695565)

I've been seeing it coming for years. It seems like it would be prudent to have other means of power generation at your house if at all possible. You can get a generator that'll run on LP or natural gas, power your whole house and cut in automatically if there's an outage for less than 10 grand. After a three day outage last winter, this has moved WAY up my list of priorities. If I had an exta few tens of millions sitting around I'd just drop a pebble bed reactor in my back yard and watch the vein in that one neighbor's head just explode! Heh heh heh.

Distributed Power Generation (2)

Phoenix666 (184391) | about a year ago | (#44695649)

The answer to this problem, and also to the problem of grid failure due to extreme weather, is to decentralize power production. Individual homes can often produce as much power as they need with solar and micro-wind turbines. If they tie in to a micro-grid [rmi.org] --essentially a neighborhood-level grid--they can load balance against their neighbors.

Decentralizing power production yields many other benefits, too. Individuals save tons of money on power bills (the cost of solar, for example, has been dropping dramatically [thinkprogress.org] ), the country produces less CO2, and everyone has a lot more money in their pockets they can boost the economy with.

Re:Distributed Power Generation (1)

King_TJ (85913) | about a year ago | (#44695765)

I'd agree, but the cost is still a pretty big barrier to entry for most people.

I'm not just talking about the cost of the power generation equipment itself here, but the big picture. For example, I'm renting a townhouse from a guy right now, and while I'd love to generate some of my own electricity and get off the grid? I'm not even allowed to put anything on his (recently re-shingled) roof. Even running a small backup generator during a power outage is problematic here, thanks to decisions like hard-wiring the electric water heater instead of making it plug into a wall outlet. (Can't just unplug it from the wall and attach to an extension cord going outside to a gas powered generator.)

When we buy our next home, I'll have more options .... but even then? Unless I'm able to take out a mortgage for more than the home's price to cover it, we won't really have the disposable income to invest in something like solar power. (IMO, the companies selling everything from natural gas powered backup generators to wind turbines to solar panels need to come up with a "no money down" program where monthly payments are no more than the utility bills you replaced with them. Until that's feasible, it's still overpriced for a lot of us.)

Re:Distributed Power Generation (1)

MickyTheIdiot (1032226) | about a year ago | (#44695801)

Generating home power isn't a all or nothing situation. There are levels you can get into that have lower prices for entry.

Re:Distributed Power Generation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44695795)

This is a hard sell because people that generate their own power are portrayed as loonies in the media.

If I moved to a rural area, the first thing I would do would be to add turbines and solar panels. Despite what is constantly being said in the media and by right-wing pundits (who have their nose in the oil troff) it makes a lot of economic sense.

Glad I live in Texas (1)

gravis777 (123605) | about a year ago | (#44695655)

A downed transmission line in Ohio or wildfire in California shouldn't affect me.

http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/national_energy_grid/united-states-of-america/graphics/USA_grid.gif [geni.org]

Re:Glad I live in Texas (0)

MickyTheIdiot (1032226) | about a year ago | (#44695809)

I wish there was a wall between Texas and the rest of the country so Texas wouldn't affect US.

Re:Glad I live in Texas (2)

Overzeetop (214511) | about a year ago | (#44695921)

Nah, it just means that when Texas power goes down, the rest of us don't have to give a shit.

Jeff Dagle - He knows what he is talking about (1)

kelv (305876) | about a year ago | (#44695753)

I know Jeff Dagle and he knows what he is talking about. I meet him when visiting PNNL earlier in the year and he understands how the bulk transmission system in the US works better than most people on the planet.

The best thing the US TSOs have done to prevent this happening again is install lots of PMUs under the NASPI program (see https://www.naspi.org/ [naspi.org] ) which Jeff is a member of. This is what gives the TSOs (and all the regional coordination authorities etc....) the real-time operational awareness of the stability of the bulk transmission system that just didn't exist a decade ago.

Corporations Rule (1)

shawnhcorey (1315781) | about a year ago | (#44695931)

By law, corporations in the US must enhance their shareholders value. That means they're cheap. Cheap infrastructures are not robust. They are built to fail. Another blackout that happened in the NE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965 [wikipedia.org]
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