Reliability and Resilience: Preventing Power Outages

Reliability and Resilience: Preventing Power Outages

This piece was originally published in the September 2016 issue of electroindustry.

Kevin J. Cosgriff, President & CEO, NEMA

Power Distribution Station with Lightning Strike.

On September 8, 2011, the Southwest went dark. Flights were grounded, traffic signals switched off, roads gridlocked, elevators trapped people, families fled outdoors to escape stifling indoor heat, and emergency 911 calls were rerouted as a patchwork fix. When critical generators failed, 66 nursing home residents were evacuated and seven hospital patients on life support were relocated.

All of this occurred because a technician accidentally disconnected a high-voltage transmission line that stretched from Arizona to California, resulting in voltage disruptions and equipment overloads that ultimately left almost seven million people—including all of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico—without power for a day.

Typically, power outages occur because of severe weather events. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, the top ten events that most stressed the bulk power system in 2015 were all due to severe weather (windstorms, thunderstorms, cold snaps, and excessive rainfall). The same is true for nine out of ten of the top ten most stressful events since 2008 (the one exception, and the top event, was the 2011 Southwest blackout).

Events you would recognize by name—polar vortex, derecho, Sandy, Irene—all pushed the grid to extremes. However, there are many other causes of power outages: human error, equipment misoperation or malfunction, squirrels (yes, squirrels), and even physical vandalism, terrorism, and cyberattacks.

NEMA members make the equipment that, when properly installed, operated, and maintained, increases the resilience of the grid, thereby improving overall reliability. Phasor measurement units give grid operators accurate and near-real-time measurements of grid performance; power transformers with built-in sensors detect anomalies and predict maintenance needs; automatic reclosers prevent short circuits from causing extended outages and automatically restore power; microgrids and energy storage systems supply power to critical facilities; and advanced metering infrastructure automatically notifies the utility of a power outage.

The challenge America faces is in finding ways to speed the adoption of these existing technologies to strengthen the grid before an outage occurs.

Rewriting the regulatory rules by which utilities are governed and aligning incentives to encourage specific performance outcomes, are some of the fastest ways to boost the reliability of the electric grid. Performance-based ratemaking and regulation provide a means for utilities to seek financial incentives when they meet or exceed reliability targets, or to pay penalties when they fail to perform. In the United Kingdom, for example, distribution utilities are paid a bonus or must pay a penalty for meeting or missing pre-determined standards for the number of customers interrupted and the duration of the outage.

We tend to not think about electricity until we don’t have it. Power outages may be a mild inconvenience for some but are life-or-death situations for others, and outages result in billions of dollars of lost economic activity each year. While many of the threats to the electric grid cannot be avoided, we can and should take steps today to increase the resilience of the system by installing modern grid technologies to boost reliability and efficiency. The stakes are too high not to.

Read the September 2016 issue of electroindustry.

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