PrepTalks: Kate Konschnik “Left in the Dark: Power Outages in an Interconnected World”


[PrepTalks Theme Music Playing] I’m a climate and energy researcher at
Duke University. Since I moved to North Carolina just about two years ago, my new
adopted state has had five declared emergencies, all having to do with wind
and rain. The Outer Banks, those barrier islands just off the coast of North
Carolina, are particularly vulnerable to these storm events which are becoming
more frequent and more intense. One of these islands is Ocracoke. It’s
year-round population could be an area code. It’s said that Blackbeard met his
demise here in 1718. Access is only possible by ferry, private boat, or
private plane. It’s at the end of the line, exposed to the ocean, connected to
the United States through the island of Hatteras by a single electric cable. It’s
a draw for tourists and it’s ground zero for power outages. In September 2019
Hurricane Dorian slammed the Carolina coast after devastating the Bahamas.
Ocracoke experienced seven-foot floods in two hours. This is a foot higher than
they’ve ever seen before. Record levels were in 1944, a foot shorter. Three days
later, the island had no power. And by that I don’t mean people on the island
had no power, I mean the island had no power. The grid was restored on the
fourth day, but a week after the event many people still didn’t have
electricity. WUMC reported three homes on fire, as they were reconnected to the
grid, something blew. Another four-hundred homes had to have their electric meters and
wiring pulled out because of damage from flooding. Hurricanes aren’t the only
cause of power outages on Ocracoke. In June, the single transmission line that
connects the island to the rest of the country, there was a malfunction on the
mainland and Ocracoke had no power for several hours.
Three weeks later half the island lost power for several hours. In August 2017,
Ocracoke lost power for a full week. A construction crew hit, again that
star-crossed transmission line, coming on to the island and power was out. Four
thousand tourists were asked to leave the island immediately. Recall that the
only way off the island are three ferries or a private boat or plane. Those
who stayed behind, residents and tourists who couldn’t leave the island,
had no power until about the fourth day. Village generators were then activated,
but people are asked to rational electricity. That meant no air conditioning in August,
no hot water, It meant people had to watch their food spoil including
businesses that had stockpiled for the tourist season. People also had to ration
water because the public water system usually runs on electric pump, and only
had a half powered diesel backup. All of these events, these emergencies big and
small, happen on Ocracoke. And when they happen they always seem to
cause or flow from some sort of power outage. Power outages then have cascading
events that flow from them, new dangers that arise. Downed power lines, spoiled
food and water. Little Ocracoke is particularly vulnerable, but we should
see it as a dry run for the massive power outages we could see anywhere in
the United States. From an earthquake, some storm, a cyber attack, or a much more
mundane event. Understanding the grid and preparing for its catastrophic failure
must be part of a first responder’s toolkit. First some basics. Thousands of
facilities generate electricity in the United States, ultimately serving one hundred and forty-
five million customers or meters. Electricity is conducted through wires from those
generating facilities, to wherever it is needed instantaneously.
Each of these wires has a carrying capacity measured in megawatts. Carrying
capacity is a function of the line’s voltage, the pressure that a line can
take, that pressure is what pushes electric current through the system. And
distance, how far that electricity needs to travel. The longer the distance, the
higher the voltage that is needed to move that same amount of electricity.
Once power meets load, comes to a town or a heavy population center for instance,
it stepped down through transformers to the distribution lines you see in your
neighborhood. American power lines conduct alternating current, meaning that
the current switches direction as it travels. From positive to negative
voltage and back to positive. The speed of that switching is called frequency.
One Hertz is one switch per second. Now voltage and frequency must be kept
relatively constant for the system to work. This is a really tall order. The
system is extensive. We’re talking millions of miles of high and low
voltage power lines and ever changing, based on supply and demand of power. A
power plant may go down. A car may hit a power line and knock power to ten homes.
I may decide to toast a piece of bread. All of these things, some more
predictable than others effect frequency. Changes in frequency or damaged power
lines meanwhile can force a change in voltage. Too high a voltage, too much
pressure, can destroy equipment very quickly. And anyone who’s plugged an
American hair dryer into a UK socket knows what I’m talking about. These
events can cause power outages. So far I’ve been talking about the grid as if
it is a single thing. Not so. It is in fact a hodgepodge of
overlapping physical and regulatory structures, working in uneasy alliance to
deliver power in real time. The U.S. and Canada operate two a/c grids. Each
humming along at a synchronized frequency of sixty hertz. These continental
grids are cleverly called the eastern and western interconnects. It may come as
no surprise that Texas runs its own grid and that Quebec does the same in Canada.
These four grids are then connected through limited direct current lines,
allowing some amount of flow through all four regions. The interconnects describe
physical grids, but within those physical structures on the U.S. part of the
interconnects, operation of the grid is managed through sixty-six balancing authorities.
Some of these authorities are utilities, private or public like Tennessee Valley
Authority. Some are the seven electric competitive electricity markets that we
have. They also operate the wires for multiple transmission owners. As their
name suggests, these authorities cooperate with one another to balance
supply with demand. Their work has gotten a lot more complicated since competition
was introduced to the sector in the nineteen-nineties, because those balancing
authorities no longer own virtually all of the generation or the power lines
within their territories. We have a much more decentralized system now, which is
more efficient and more flexible, but also carries more risk. The Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC regulates the transmission lines and
those electricity power markets, except for the one in Texas. Meanwhile, the North
American Electric Reliability Council or NAERC sets technical standards with a
goal of having no more than one day of outage every ten years.
The state public utility Commissions regulate the distribution lines and most,
but not all, of the generators. Sometimes states or local facilities, towns, cities
own their own electric utilities. And electric co-ops operate regularly unregulated. Among these interconnects, subject to multiple and
overlapping authorities, the grid must nevertheless be managed as one
integrated system. Knowing this, it is amazing, power is as reliable as it is.
It’s even more remarkable when you realize how old the power grid is. The
American Society for Civil Engineers gives our energy infrastructure
a D-plus. They note that most of our power lines were built in the nineteen-fifties and
nineteen-sixties, and that when built, they had an expected life of fifty years. The
infrastructure is not only aging, but it was built for a different time. It was
built to drive current in one direction from large power plants that were sort
of trundling along, putting out similar amounts of productivity every day and
heading in one direction. Today we are taxing this system because we’re moving
towards more distributed and more variable generation. And we are
experiencing multi-directional current. So for instance solar panels on your
house are generating electricity during the day and sending current to the grid,
but at night your home becomes an electric sink and draws current from the
grid .Those same lines are having to manage both transactions. On any given
day about a half a million people lose power for two hours or more in the
United States. These are largely unremarkable events and perhaps not even
surprising, given the complexities I’ve described. If you’re a first responder,
you’ve no doubt contended with a power outage. But what about longer outages?
Think about how you use electricity. If you wake up in the morning are you
warm enough or does your heater have an electric starter? Are you cool enough or
is your air-conditioning or fans shut off? Can you drink water or flush the toilet or is your water system on an electric
pump? Do you have food thawing in the freezer? Insulin warming in the fridge? Is
your phone charged? Can you use Wi-Fi if your router is out? Is that caffeine
headache kicking in from lack of coffee? Do you have a garage door opener?
Are you able to get out of your garage? Do you have enough fuel in your tank
because without electricity most fuel pumps don’t work? If you start to drive
through the neighborhood, what kind of hazards are there with downed power
lines and maybe all the traffic lights out? Some homes and businesses have
backup gas or diesel generators. These are very useful.
They’re also noisy and contribute to air pollution. And there are equity concerns
about who is able to buy a generator. But after some time, the generator fuel runs
out. And as days turn into weeks, what happens to your supplies, food, water, fuel?
How’s the bathroom situation? Is there anywhere to get additional supplies? Are
you being paid if you haven’t been able to go to work? Can you get money with ATM
machines down and the internet down? Are stores is even open? Do you have security
concerns without lighting or security systems and as desperation mounts? Now
you factor in Alexa, smart appliances, electric vehicles. As we plug more of our
lives into this complex grid, we become that much more reliant on this energy
source and potentially more vulnerable. So what are all the points of failure in
this system? What are the ways this can go wrong? Far and away the biggest threat
to the gritter storms. They knock out power lines, they flood power plants, they
freeze piles of coal. Next and closely-related are trees
coming into contact with powerlines. Utilities have tree trimming programs
but as you recall we’re talking millions of miles of lines. And even the most
robust tree trimming program can be bested by a hurricane, a nor’easter,
another high wind or rain event. They may blow down a tree, knock off limbs from
ice, meanwhile high temperatures can cause powerlines to sag, and whenever a
power line touches a tree or gets close enough to the tree that the current can
jump to the tree to be grounded, pow! From two thousand and three to two thousand and twelve, storm events usually starring large trees caused seven hundred major outages in the United States, which means at least fifty-thousand customers were impacted. If climate models are correct, these grid
stressors are only going to get more intense. Earlier this year, a Western
utility reported a malicious cyber event. Hackers overwhelmed its Cisco servers,
blocking access to the system. The disruption had little practical effect
but so far as we know, this was the first attack of its kind in
the United States. And it also made people realize that many of our
utilities, interconnected again to those continental grids, use the same Internet
infrastructure that we do. The massive blackout in the summer of two thousand and three, which plunged New York City and much of the Northeast into darkness for two days, was
caused by trees and powerlines making contact in Ohio. A bug and First Energy Software, meanwhile, made their computers unable to take in multiple
complaint calls at once, delaying the ability to shore off powerlines and keep
them from being affected from catastrophic surges in voltage. Here,
gretchen Bakke reminds us, a catastrophe was caused by three trees and a faulty
line of code. From cyberattacks, to human error, from hurricanes to that tree down
the street, we have plenty of growing threats to
dodge. So what can be done? Utilities are starting to begin aggressive storm
hardening programs. These include replacing wood poles with concrete,
burying lines, and yes trimming trees. The Florida Power and Light Utility credits
these kinds of activities with its reduced power outages during Hurricane
Dorian. Technology is also helping utilities respond to outages more
quickly. Smart meters can tell a utility in real time when your power is out. This
is a vast improvement over the traditional way of finding out about an
outage, where companies would triangulate complaint calls, and then send a truck to
drive around and look for the problem. Self-healing grids can isolate damaged
segments of line meanwhile and reroute electricity to bring power to more
people faster. But all of these approaches cost money and state utility
commissions have to be willing to let utilities pass these costs on to
consumers, in order for the work to happen. And sometimes a price tag is just
too high. In twenty-eighteen, North Carolina rejected Duke Energy’s multi-billion dollar
proposal to underground every wire in the state.
Going forward states may need to revisit how they think about these cost-benefit
allocations. For instance most states don’t consider the lost economic
productivity caused by a blackout. If they did some more of these programs
might start to make sense. Investment in smart grids in critical locations, for
instance. Burying every wire still might not be on the list of things to do. But
as storms increase and lengthen, the calculation really may change in states
and it’s no surprise, recall I talked about Florida Power and Light, that
Florida has been approving these storm hardening measures. Additional measures
following the sort of two camps. Some attempt to pump the brakes on
change. They really see the retention of base load nuclear and coal plants as key
to keeping the lights on. Others want to lean into new technology. They see that a
more decentralized grid is harder to attack and they point to certain smart
grid features as ways of increasing reliability and resiliency. But as they
have these debates, we have to prepare for the next storm. It is coming, and
based on recent trends, it may be sooner and more powerful than we think. So what
can first responders do? First responders could work with communities to educate
them about how to truly prepare for an extended outage. Toilet paper and a
gallon of milk helps for that first day. After that, not so much. So thinking about
the ways communities use electricity, and then finding analog backups, is really
important. If the community has a lot of water wells where electric pumps are
necessary to bring the water out of the ground,
having manual backup pumps is really important and something worth educating
the community about. If you need firewood or charcoal to keep warm or to prepare
food it’s really important to have those stores and to protect them from
floodwaters, if you’re in a flooding event. Second responders can work with
communities to establish nano-grid response zones. These predetermined zones
could be in a natural gathering place like a school or a house of worship. They
could be activated during an emergency and powered by solar fuel cells,
batteries, and generators. They could become the home base for local response
teams before help arrives from the outside. Third, emergency exercises should
assume there is no electricity in the impacted area and that it might not come
back for some time. If those scenario come to life, first responders won’t be
able to use high-tech tools. We’ll need off-the-grid
and old-school solutions. Following Dorian, one of the most useful things
handed out in the Bahamas other than water, were solar-powered lanterns with
USB chargers for cell phones. Meanwhile back on Ocracoke, islanders
were really struggling the first couple of days after Dorian. They were cut off
from the rest of the world, had no power and every motor vehicle on the island
had been damaged by the flood, every single one. So they couldn’t get
generators from one part of the island to places where they were needed most.
When that first ferry arrived with emergency supplies, the islanders came at
the ferry thanked them and said please come back with wheelbarrows. So as we
build the grid of the future we also have to remember to prepare ourselves
for emergencies, with laminated paper maps, solar lanterns, and wheelbarrows.
Thank you. For the most part, given that we are such
a big country geographically and very diverse in topography and climate, there
is an expectation that in many parts of the country even if there was a
catastrophic outage that within a week or two, you could bring supplies from
other places. Meanwhile the utilities, and I’m sure the first responders here know,
are out there immediately often during the storm trying to figure out what’s
going on. So I think where we’re seeing real stresses and real risks of longer
outages are some of these more isolated communities, either on islands or in very
rural places. There have been intense storms in the upper Pacific Northwest
for instance where villages have been sort of left on their own for quite some
time. There’s then the sort of Black Swan event of you know, the entire grid gets
taken out by a cyber attack for instance. And I have not seen, I would love if
other people hear and know about it and can point me to it, I have not seen
research on what you do in that case. I’ve seen sort of thought experiment
novel kind of you know approaches to this, of thinking about what it would
look like and how quickly would you know things turn to chaos. But I have not seen
sort of emergency planning or political science or technical folks really
thinking through those multi month outages. Once the power goes out, I think some of
these thinking through some of these sort of analog tools that could be
brought to the impacted community is really important. So you know it’s
certainly helpful to bring bottled water, it’s even more helpful to bring a manual
pump, so that we can reactivate some of the community wells and get a larger
volume of water flowing. So I think thinking about that sort of next order
of how on a more of a you know street scale community scale can we start to
bring some normalcy back here. And it’s not going to be those high-tech tools
it’s going to be the wheelbarrows, the solar lanterns, the water pumps. And so
thinking about those things is really important. Great question. So we’re actually looking
into this right now. In the wake of the hurricanes and the storm events last
fall in North Carolina, just on the heels of those, Governor Cooper signed an
executive order that dealt with climate mitigation but also climate resilience.
And there’s a statewide resiliency plan being put together right now and as part
of that we’ve been trying to find that out exactly. It seems like, and again
have-nots cannot say we’ve had a comprehensive review, but it seems like
those things can pop up very individually where a family has thought
to do this and then not so much at the community scale. So we were thinking that
this could be a nation, it’s something we’re talking about with the state
of North Carolina, about suggesting that Ocracoke for instance, have several of
these nano grids. And they’re you could also think of other non electrified
resources that you could have there like a propane powered refrigerator and then
people would know they could bring their insulin there and have it stored there
until they get refrigeration. We are concerned about aging
infrastructure, a sort of shifting electricity system in the United States
from more centralized to more decentralized. We’re concerned about
increased frequency and intensity of storms. Cyberattacks that have been
popping up around the the world certainly are of deep concern. But you
know that’s sort of the nature of this, we don’t know until it happens that it’s
going it’s going to happen. [PrepTalks Theme Music Playing]

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