U.S. power grid could be too big, on the verge of collapsing like pile of sand

Friday, April 25, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: U.S. power grid, infrastructure collapse, electricity

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(NaturalNews) In a March 2014 report, The Wall Street Journal issued a dire warning about the nation's electric power grid.

"The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day," Rebecca Smith wrote.

Indeed, as Natural News and other sites and publications have been reporting, there is increasing concern among U.S. policymakers, Congress and others that the nation's electric power grid is at risk of being crippled, either by direct cyber attack or by through the physical destruction of key transmission sites.

In fact, the power grid is as brittle as a sand castle, say a trio of researchers whose new study is sounding alarm bells in government and in the industry.

"Some 90 years ago, British polymath J.B.S. Haldane proposed that for every animal there is an optimal size -- one which allows it to make best use of its environment and the physical laws that govern its activities, whether hiding, hunting, hoofing or hibernating. Today, three researchers are asking whether there is a 'right' size for another type of huge beast: the U.S. power grid," says a news release describing the results of the study.

'Sand piles are stable until you get to a certain height'

University of Alaska physicist David Newman says he believes that smaller power grids would reduce the eventuality of severe outages, like the 2003 Northeast blackout that severed power to 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada for up to two days (extrapolate that out to 30-40 days or longer, in the nation's most densely populated areas, and you can get an idea of just how disastrous this can be, especially during periods of intense summer heat or winter cold).

Newman, along with co-authors Benjamin Carreras of BACV Solutions in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Ian Dobson of Iowa State University, made the case for their argument in the journal Chaos, which is produced by AIP Publishing.

The investigative examination began two decades ago, when Newman and Carreras were studying why stable fusion plasmas became so unstable so quickly. They modeled the problem by likening the plasma to a sand pile.

"Sandpiles are stable until you get to a certain height. Then you add one more grain and the whole thing starts to avalanche. This is because the pile's grains are already close to the critical angle where they will start rolling down the pile. All it takes is one grain to trigger a cascade," Newman explained.

While discussing a blackout, Newman and Carreras realized that their sand pile model might help explain the behavior of the nation's electric power grids.

North America has three grids, the researchers note, and they are interconnected systems that transmit power from scores of hundreds of power plants to many millions more customers. Each of the three grids are vast because the more plants and transmission lines in a grid, the better it can even out local power fluctuations in the supply and demand, or respond if some part of the grid happens to go down.

Then again, large grids are vulnerable to the rare but significant possibility of a grid-wide outage like that which occurred in 2003.

Or that could occur as a result of foul play.

'We can reduce the societal cost of failures'

"The problem is that grids run close to the edge of their capacity because of economic pressures. Electric companies want to maximize profits, so they don't invest in more equipment than they need," Newman said.

So, on hot days in particular, everyone's got the A/C running; at those times, grids are near peak capacity. Still, if a tree branch happens to knock down a transmission line, the grid is normally resilient enough to distribute extra power and make up the difference. But if the grid is already near its critical point and there is no extra capacity, there is a chance, however small, that it could collapse like a sand pile.

This vulnerability to cascading events comes from the fact that the grid's complexity evolved over time. Also, it reflects the tension between economic pressures and government regulations to ensure reliability.

"Over time, the grid evolved in ways that are not pre-engineered," Newman said. "If we reduce the number of connected pieces, maybe we can reduce the societal cost of failures."





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