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Power Math United States Science

US Electrical Grid On the Edge of Failure 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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US Electrical Grid On the Edge of Failure

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  • Re:Coincidentally... (Score:5, Informative)

    by cdrudge ( 68377 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @08:32AM (#44695305) Homepage

    American house wiring seems to be terrible.

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

  • Re:Wrong analogy (Score:5, Informative)

    by msauve ( 701917 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @08:32AM (#44695311)
    The goal for a good analogy should always be to score points and win the game.
  • Inherently unstable (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ateocinico ( 32734 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @08:36AM (#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:Coincidentally... (Score:5, Informative)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @08:42AM (#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.

  • by neorush ( 1103917 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @08:42AM (#44695395) Homepage
    ....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:Coincidentally... (Score:5, Informative)

    by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @09:06AM (#44695595)

    not enough sunlight in many parts of the country

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

    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 [] will install the system for no money down, then sell you electricity at a rate lower than the utility.

  • Re:Wrong analogy (Score:5, Informative)

    by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @09:15AM (#44695661) Homepage

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

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

    eg. []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @09:25AM (#44695729)

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

  • Re:Wrong analogy (Score:4, Informative)

    by tippe ( 1136385 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @10:29AM (#44696371)

    The inrush current when powering on a device (even for something as simple as a lightbulb) from an off state is indeed higher than its steady-state consumption. However, the transient lasts so briefly for most devices (that you would have in your house) that the additional power lost (due to the inrush) probably only amounts to a few seconds worth of actual steady-state operation. In other words, as long as the power failure is reasonably long (a few seconds at least), there will be a net reduction in your power use. For big factories with large electric motors and machinery that require time to spin up, the story is probably a little different... The bigger issue, which you alluded to, is all of your devices (that were in standby before the power failure) coming up to full power once power is restored. [Aside: I have a NAS and a server at home that fall under this category: most of the time they are in low power standby (unless I'm using them), but they'll power up to 100% following a power failure. For those devices, a power failure shorter than at least 1 hour means I might have to pay more for power than I would have otherwise.]

    Plus, I'm also willing to bet that your power meter, even if it's a "smart" one, isn't capable of measuring instantaneous current fast enough to detect the full magnitude of the inrush current. It might not even detect it at all, meaning that quite contrary to the idea of the power company making money off you following a power failure, they might actually be losing it. On top of that, the inrush current that occurs after power is restored does put strain on the power distribution and generation equipment, so I'll bet the power company don't see the switching of power on and off as an opportunity to make money off of us.

  • by Phoenix666 ( 184391 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @10:29AM (#44696379)

    It does not make sense in your situation as a renter, but when you own it does, even with where installation costs and everything else are now. The average American family uses 940kwh/month.

    Let's take the case of a house in NYC, which has both some of the highest labor costs (pertinent to installation costs of solar panels) and electricity costs ($0.35/kwh from ConEdison). You need 26 290W panels to produce the electricity you need. The cost of panels plus installation totals $48.5K. After just the federal incentive it comes down to $32K. The ConEdison-provided electricity costs $4K/yr, so that's a break-even time of 8 years. Most people own their homes longer than 8 years.

    When you factor in the New York State solar incentive of 25% the break-even drops to 5 years. When you consider that ConEdison's price per kwh has increased more than 10% every year for the past 10 years, that break-even time drops to 4-4.5 years.

    If the upfront cost of $22K is still a barrier when you buy that house, you can shop around for energy efficient mortgages. They lend to you at an advantageous rate so you can afford to upgrade the home's energy efficiency, as in they knock of a couple basis points. The savings over a 30-yr mortgage are huge, on top of what you save on the electricity (most solar panels are rated for that long).

    In short, it already makes financial sense to do this stuff, and since the cost of going solar dropped 80% between 2008-2012 it's only going to get easier.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @11:03AM (#44696719)

    Yep, that is exactly the approach. Since 2003, Midcontinent ISO a.k.a. Midwest ISO (and the other ISOs covering other regions of the country) have spent additional tens or hundreds of millions of dollars beefing up the amount of monitoring, the speed of response, and the amount of information available to the real-time grid operators. If anything goes down (and this is inevitable) the goal is to contain the blackout to a small area and keep everything else running. In 2003, the grid operator didn't figure out what was happening for like an hour, and by then it had cascaded too far to contain. Nowadays, they will know in much less than 5 minutes (within seconds for most problems) and can take action to contain it. Cascading blackouts can still happen, but they are much less likely than 10 years ago, due to the money we've spent on people and technology.

    Posting as A/C because I'm a former Midwest ISO employee. :-)

  • Re:Wrong analogy (Score:4, Informative)

    by DarkTempes ( 822722 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @11:11AM (#44696793)
    Or two weeks without power in a southern state's summer heat after a hurricane...

  • Deregulation at work (Score:3, Informative)

    by GodfatherofSoul ( 174979 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @11:24AM (#44696915)

    We decided that regulating how much maintenance work utility companies have to do on their lines stifled innovation, so we deregulated. Naturally, said companies cut back on maintenance to save money. This was covered pretty well in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast, flawed as he may be in terms of his self-importance.

    Democracy Now discussion [] from 10 years ago.

  • Re:Coincidentally... (Score:4, Informative)

    by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @12:07PM (#44697321)

    P=IV. Good place to start. Now just consider V=IR too, and look at the implications.

    House wiring does have resistance. Not much, but some. So, for the sake of argument, lets assume there is 4ohm in the cables from your transformer to the other side of your house (This is actually rather a lot, but something you might encounter on a long run such as powering an outbuilding), and that you want to run a decently powerful appliance - say, a kettle, 1KW (Make it resistive so we don't have to worry about power factor).

    In a 230V Euro house: P=IV, I=P/V = 1000/230 = 4.35A. Voltage lost in the wiring is thus V=IR=4.35*4=17.4V, or 7.5% of your line voltage. That's not *too* bad - but it'll dim the lights in your shed if you want to make a cup of tea out there.

    Run the same numbers in a 110V American house: P=IV, I=P/V = 1000/110 = 9.09A, voltage lose is V=IR=9.09*4=36V, or 33% of your line voltage. That's... nasty. That's into the territory where your computer crashes and your tea takes too long to boil.

    This is also the reason long-distance transmission is done using very, very high voltages (Between 12KV and 1MV) on overhead pylons. Higher voltage means lower current means less voltage drop, and also means that drop makes up a smaller percentage of your total.

"Well, it don't make the sun shine, but at least it don't deepen the shit." -- Straiter Empy, in _Riddley_Walker_ by Russell Hoban