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A Federal Investment Needed to Harden Nation’s Power Grid

Greg Domingue's picture
Branch Manager AWC

Greg Domingue, is a licensed professional engineer, a former Siemens executive and currently in sales with a Louisiana based Siemens distributor.

  • Member since 2021
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  • Oct 15, 2021
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Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms to ever hit Louisiana, wreaked havoc on the electrical grid across much of the region. As a licensed electrical Professional Engineer, and a Louisiana native, who has seen his fair share of storms, I was shocked by just how widespread and severe the damage was to our electrical infrastructure.

But for anyone who believes powerful storms are just a problem for coastal regions, think again. This is a nationwide concern. A new report issued this week found that “25% of all critical infrastructure and 23% of roads have flood risk.”

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Having a month to reflect on Hurricane Ida, which hit at the end of August, it is becoming clear that there are some key takeaways that state and federal policymakers should consider.

Elected leaders and the media need to stop with the narrative that our infrastructure problems are due to inept electrical utilities unwilling to maintain the grid. In reality, large, investor owned utilities – like Entergy, in Louisiana – are constantly investing in modernizing and maintaining their infrastructure. I am not asserting that they couldn’t do more to harden assets like transformers, towers and lines. But Entergy’s recent investments in the region’s grid helped to restore power much more quickly in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Understand, Southeast Louisiana was hit with the kinds of powerful winds associated with a massive category 4 hurricane. That level of kinetic energy would have done serious damage to any municipal electrical grid in the country.

But because Entergy has invested in grid maintenance and disaster response capabilities, Entergy was able to quickly dispatch over 20,000 linemen to repair over 30,000 downed poles.

Going forward, there is also going to need to be a serious federal investment in hardening our critical infrastructure against wind and water damage. Just as after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government made successful and lasting improvements to New Orleans’ levy system, we need that type of national commitment to hardening the state’s, and the nation’s, electrical grid. 

To improve our grid, one important tactic could be to invest in technology that would make placing
more of our infrastructure below ground and, therefore, less susceptible to high winds. Obviously,
putting equipment underground is not feasible everywhere in Louisiana. But where we can, the
challenge is ensuring those components stay dry and are always fully operational. Investing in resources
to monitor and ensure that underground infrastructure works (even in a hurricane) would help protect
us in severe weather and ensure power is restored much more quickly.

Sophisticated grid monitoring is the preferred technology, as opposed to spending billions to harden all components of the electrical grid. This because from a budgetary and engineering standpoint, it is more cost effective and easier to monitor and fix what is damaged, rather than trying to prevent everything from breaking in the first place.

An added benefit for the federal government making this investment in Louisiana, is that technologies that work here can be easily deployed to other regions that will soon be dealing with the type of extreme weather events becoming common place in the Pelican State. After all, Hurricane Ida caused more fatalities from flooding in New York, than it did in Louisiana.

Finally, if our state is going to remain a place to raise families, invest and engage in commerce – it is going to need to manage living with more frequent and severe storms. A federal investment in hardening our grid, and betting on American ingenuity, would go a long way to ensuring the Gulf Coast region remains a viable and thriving part of our nation.

The good news is that an investment in the electrical grid in Louisiana can create a real-world test of the solutions to the infrastructure challenges that will soon be facing most Americans. There is no time to wait and I encourage lawmakers in Washington, and across the nation, to act promptly.

The author is a licensed professional engineer and has an MBA from Tulane University
 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 15, 2021

To improve our grid, one important tactic could be to invest in technology that would make placing
more of our infrastructure below ground and, therefore, less susceptible to high winds.

From what I understand, the lack of putting the wires underground isn't purely to save on the immediate costs that would come with doing so, but also the ongoing costs of increased O&M costs and complexities that could lead to other reliability issues. Do you think those challenges are able to be overcome? 

Greg Domingue's picture
Greg Domingue on Oct 15, 2021

Matt, Thanks for your comment.  That's exactly what I'm suggesting.  We can easily monitor underground infrastructure with commercial off the shelf SCADA solutions.  This would ensure more uptime of systems and create a faster response during times of failure. 

Chris Costanzo's picture
Chris Costanzo on Oct 21, 2021

Greg,

That's a great article. I agree that federal assistance would definitely help to accelerate the grid hardening process but an ounce of prevention is almost always better than a pound of cure. Therefore, investment in prevention should take precedence over deploying sophisticated grid monitoring equipment that identifies a failure and ideally, doing both would be preferred.

Yes, placing most of our power lines underground is not feasible but there are many less expensive things that can be done to protect overhead power lines. As the grid ages and equipment failures increase, there appears to be a fundamental shift taking place with many utilities where they put less effort in reactive maintenance and more into preventive strategies like line inspections. Many use infrared thermography which is less expensive and less time consuming than the more effective hot-line measurement tools looking for high resistance connectors but again this is just another strategy to identify the failure before it happens.

In many cases, the best maintenance method is predictive. This allows us to use historical data to determine what will likely fail and then use that knowledge to prevent the failure from happening in the first place. Similar to why automobiles have regular oil changes. A very comprehensive article on this subject was published in Utility Products magazine titled, "Asset Life Extension: Prevention Is Best” https://www.utilityproducts.com/line-construction-maintenance/article/14068394/asset-life-extension-prevention-is-best

The weakest link in any overhead system will always be connection points, such as dead ends, suspension clamps, and splices. Conductors and well-maintained towers will always outlast the connectors. With this in mind, some utilities have installed engineered electrical mechanical shunts over all connection points on their overhead lines and not just on existing lines but in new construction as well. Kind of like a belt and suspenders approach. They’re looking at it like an inexpensive insurance policy. There’s no doubt that if all overhead connectors were protected with engineered electrical mechanical shunts, many downed-line incidents would be prevented but of course some hurricane force winds can do severe damage to overhead lines that no amount of preparation can prevent.  Specific information on this topic can be found here; https://classicconnectors.com/

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