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Transforming: Our Grid Supply Chain

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David Gaier's picture
Owner David Gaier PR

David Gaier is a communications professional, former spokesman for NRG Energy and PSEG Long Island, and consultant to energy advisory agencies. His 30+-year career includes crisis communications...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Apr 30, 2020
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A month into an unprecedented viral pandemic, we found—despite nightly protestations from top federal officials to the contrary—that we weren’t producing and could not produce even enough surgical masks, protective gowns and face shields domestically for our first responders and front line nurses, doctors and medical technicians. Nor are we remotely testing enough of our citizens per capita to reasonably rule them in or out as infected and able to return to society or requiring sequestering. A couple weeks ago, the situation became so dire—and frankly, absurd—that the Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, enlisted his South Korean-born wife to broker a deal for a half-million masks from her homeland and personally arranged to fly them to his beleaguered state.

Now imagine this: in the midst of a contagion that at this writing has killed at least 61,000+ Americans (with likely many more, tragically, to come) and infected well over a million (likely many more to come, too), we immediately and without warning lose a huge part of our regional or interstate bulk electrical system, commonly referred to as “the Grid.” Imagine the shocking chaos upon existing chaos, as field hospitals go dark, ventilators stop working, monitors run out their batteries, and pressurized oxygen masks quit without a hiss.

Sound like nonsense? It’s not. Because aside from a number of fragile characteristics of our grid, especially its vulnerability to physical attacks on unprotected and unmanned open-air substations, this country has a wafer-thin stock of large power transformers (LPTs), without which our electrical system just won’t work. And flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and lighting strikes present yet another, perhaps larger threat to those vital substations.

Is the summer of 2018, POWER magazine said the average life of an LPT was 35 years, and it takes a lot of labor to decommission and remove one transformer and replace it with another. So even under ordinary circumstances, given that many transformers in use today were installed within a relatively small period decades ago, we’re now facing a potential “wall of failures.” More to the point, their cost and lead times mean that no utility can afford to have dozens of spares sitting around waiting to be installed. Today, delivery times can range from several months to more than a year, and there is little standardization, which mean that even available spares may not be suitable depending on the voltage ranges required. The largest among them—345 kV and above—cost tens of millions of dollars, can weigh hundreds of tons, and take two years to build. And only a handful of companies manufacture them, most from…wait for it…overseas, including China. Even Germany’s Siemens and Switzerland’s ABB either manufacture LPTs in China, or source many vital materials and components from China. Sound familiar?

A number of contingency programs have been put in place over the last several years, including inventory sharing such as Spare Connect, Grid Assurance, and Wattstock, but there are systemic problems to those, as well. They’re mostly voluntary, and require overcoming transportation, logistics and interstate regulatory hurdles as well as interchangeability challenges, all of which would be magnified in case of a large-scale grid failure or attack.

To some degree, the burgeoning business of microgrids, smartgrids and distributed generation are reducing the threat and giving critical facilities options from a total dependency on the bulk power grid. And the few LPT manufacturers are developing more flexible, “building-block-type” transformers with variable voltage ranges that can be much more easily assembled, transported and interchanged with existing machines, and in a much faster timeframe.

Still, our current supply-chain fragility and dependence on foreign sources of materials, components and assembled equipment—demonstrated by the Covid19 disaster—call for another, deeper look at where we are, and where we might be when the next disaster strikes. Especially when those sources are increasingly adversarial to the interests of the United States, or are embroiled in an ongoing trade war with us.

 

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 30, 2020

To some degree, the burgeoning business of microgrids, smartgrids and distributed generation are reducing the threat and giving critical facilities options from a total dependency on the bulk power grid. And the few LPT manufacturers are developing more flexible, “building-block-type” transformers with variable voltage ranges that can be much more easily assembled, transported and interchanged with existing machines, and in a much faster timeframe.

I'm happy to see these building blocks you mention get put into place-- though what we really need to see is widespread leadership pushing this more widely. When discussed at the federal level, the topic certainly seems to have bipartisan support, but shockingly I think it tends to fall lower on the priority list (despite the absolutely integral nature of the grid). What do you think needs to happen before leadership really steps up to make these types of actions more widespread and implemented ASAP?

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