Augmented Reality: An electromagnetic pulse can take down North America's electricity grid.
This article appeared in the The World If section of the July 13, 2017 Economist print edition under the headline "A flash in the sky"
ON MARCH 13th 1989 a surge of energy from the sun, from a “coronal mass
ejection”, had a startling impact on Canada. Within 92 seconds, the
resulting geomagnetic storm took down Quebec’s electricity grid for nine
hours. It could have been worse. On July 23rd 2012 particles from a
much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth,
missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm
would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers,
according to Storm Analysis Consultants in Duluth, Minnesota. Future
geomagnetic storms are inevitable.
And that is not the only threat to the grid. A transformer-wrecking
electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would be produced by a nuclear bomb,
designed to maximise its yield of gamma rays, if detonated high up, be
it tethered to a big cluster of weather balloons or carried on a
satellite or missile. A midrange missile tested by North Korea on April
29th 2017 exploded 71 kilometres (44 miles) up, well above the 40km or
so needed to generate an EMP.
Imagine a nuclear blast occurring somewhere above eastern Nebraska.
Radiating outwards, the EMP fries electronics in southern Canada and
almost all of the United States save Alaska and Hawaii, both safe below
the horizon. It permanently damages the grid’s multimillion-dollar
high-voltage transformers. Many are old (their average age is about 40).
Some burst into flame, further damaging substations.
America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique
designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world. It
typically takes a year or more to receive an ordered transformer, and
that is when cranes work and lorries and locomotives can be fuelled up.
Some transformers exceed 400 tonnes.
After the surge, telecom
switches and internet routers are dead. Air-traffic control is down.
Within a day, some shoppers in supermarkets turn to looting (many,
unable to use credit and debit cards, cannot pay even if they wanted
to). After two days, market shelves are bare. On the third day, backup
diesel generators begin to sputter out. Though fuel cannot be pumped,
siphoning from vehicles, authorised by martial law, keeps most prisons,
police stations and hospitals running for another week.
With many troops overseas or tasked with deterring land grabs from
opportunist foreign powers, there is only one American “peacekeeper”
soldier for every 360 or so civilians. Pillaging accelerates. This leads
many with needed skills to stay home to protect their families. Many of
the rock climbers who help overwhelmed fire departments free tens of
thousands from lifts begin to give up on day four despite the
heart-wrenching banging that continues to echo through some elevator
Utilities can neither treat nor pump water or sewage.
Raids on homes thought to have water become frequent and often bloody.
Militias soon form to defend or seize control of swimming pools and
other water sources. Streams and shovelled-out pits provide water in
some areas, but sooner or later rain sweeps in faeces-ridden mud. Deaths
from cholera and other diseases multiply.
As relief ships arrive, food, water filters and fuel are offloaded by
hand amid chaos, but demand cannot be met even in port cities, much
less inland. Where food can be grown without pumped irrigation, rural
militias cluster into “aggie alliances” not keen to share with the
hordes streaming out of cities. Some aggie alliances hole up in newly
abandoned prisons, the better to defend scavenged crops and farm
animals. The value of cash collapses along with faith in government.
death rate picks up. Eventually, months later, about three quarters of
the benighted area has power for at least ten hours a day. It would have
been worse had 41 countries not dismantled transformers for reassembly
in North America. (The most generous donors have to accept rolling
blackouts.) Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge.
Roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.
A similar nightmare could happen in any rich country—grids outside
America are vulnerable too. Such scenarios necessarily dip into
“uncharted territory for an industrialised society”, as Thomas Popik,
head of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a think-tank in New
Hampshire, puts it. But shorter blackouts suggest that things can get
bad fast. Just three hours after Chile’s grid-collapsing earthquake on
February 27th 2010, even relatively wealthy people began looting stuff
they did not need. With electricity gone, normal rules had suddenly
vanished and “out of control” emotions took over, says Roberto
Machiavello, then rear-admiral and top martial-law official in Chile’s
Without soldiers at hospitals, Admiral Machiavello says, doctors would
have stayed at home. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck New
Orleans in 2005, many police officers opted to protect their families
rather than work. Chris Ipsen, spokesman for the Emergency Management
Department of Los Angeles, estimates that, with the grid down, Angelenos
would be foodless in less than ten days. In poor areas, he reckons,
groups would quickly form and say, “Hey, let’s go over to the mansions
in Bel Air.”
In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010, cholera alone
killed at least 10,000. Jacques Boncy, head of Haiti’s National
Laboratory of Public Health, reckons that, in three months of blackout
in America, faecal contamination of water would kill several million.
That might be optimistic. The EMP Commission, an expert group set up by
America’s Congress to study the threat, reckoned in 2008 that the first
year of societal breakdown could finish off two-thirds of Americans.
country’s electricity grid can be knocked out in other ways. One is
cyber-attack. Hackers cut power to 230,000 Ukrainians in December
2015—but only for hours. Long-term damage from cyber-assaults is
unlikely, says Kenneth Geers, a security expert who studied the attack.
What about terrorism? Shooting up transformers at just nine critical
substations could bring down America’s grid for months, according to an
analysis performed in 2013 by the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), says its then-chairman, Jon Wellinghoff.
Others think more transformers would need to be taken out. At any rate,
information on which substations are critical is secret. In 2013 gunmen
knocked out 17 of 21 transformers at a substation in San Jose. It was
not a critical one.
The sun probably poses a greater risk of a sustained outage than hackers
or saboteurs. That is one reason the EMP Commission reconvened in
January 2017. Kit that protects transformers from EMP also saves them
from geomagnetic storms, though the reverse is not true. George Baker, a
staffer on the commission and a former boss of EMP research at the
Pentagon’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency, says that critical military
systems have been EMP-proofed. But other agencies, he says, have done
“precious little” to safeguard civilian infrastructure. The commission
will issue an updated report in September. It will be as grim as the
assessment in 2008, he says.
The expense of installing surge-blockers and other EMP-proofing kit
on America’s big transformers is debated. The EMP Commission’s report in
2008 reckoned $3.95bn or less would do it. Others advance higher
figures. But a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented
by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m
Yet not much is being done. Barack Obama ordered EMP
protection for White House systems, but FERC, the utilities regulator,
has not required EMP-proofing. Nor has the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) pushed for a solution or even included EMP in official
planning scenarios. (The Pentagon should handle that, DHS officials say;
the Pentagon notes that civilian infrastructure is the DHS’s
responsibility.) As for exactly what safeguards are or are not needed,
the utilities themselves are best equipped to decide, says Brandon
Wales, the DHS’s head of infrastructure analysis.
But the utilities’ industry group, the North American Electric
Reliability Corporation (NERC), argues that, because EMP is a matter of
national security, it is the government’s job. NERC may anyway be in no
rush. It took a decade to devise a vegetation-management plan after, in
2003, an Ohio power line sagged into branches and cut power to 50m
north-easterners at a cost of roughly $6bn. NERC has repeatedly and
successfully lobbied Congress to prevent legislation that would require
EMP-proofing. That is something America, and the world, could one day
This is NOT the future we want. Distributed generation with universal energy modules is the answer.
Read the previous and the following posts.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Ascent Systems Technologies achieved a significant milestone and made an important step toward its goal of creating uninterrupted source of clean energy. On May 16, 2017 it began installation of the Integrated Thermal Hydronic System (ITHS) at the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at UBC in Vancouver. The system consists of a vacuum tube solar collector as a primary energy source, a thermal energy storage and an auxiliary energy source. The solar collector is installed on the specially designed mount attached to the rooftop platform. The unique design with the axle allows adjusting its azimuth angle and vary angle of inclination in a range from 0 degrees (horizontal) to 90 (vertical) degrees or even be flipped backwards. The integrated system will include embedded irradiation sensors and real-time environment monitoring capability. Within the next few months the system will be fully configured, after which testing will start at different angles, various environment conditions and using alternative control methods. When fully tested, brained with the advanced control algorithm developed in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, the system will be ready for deployment in the field. Thanks to the optimized system architecture it can be configured as a fully self-contained autonomous module capable of generating clean energy 24 hours 7 days a week. Fit in a small shipping container or a trailer, such a module could be delivered to practically any remote location. Once on site, it could immediately start generating energy without the need for fossil fuel or for being tied to the grid. Multiple modules deployed at various geographical locations will be connected in an intelligent grid for performance data collection and analysis as well as climate monitoring and solar mapping.
UBC CIRS - May 16, 2017.
Prof. Ryozo Nagamune (right) and his team of students helped bringing the mount to the rooftop platform.
The tripod which is going to hold the entire structure
The tripod is going to be attached to the rooftop platform
It is not always straightforward
Solar axle is going to hold the solar frame
And now the frame is on the axle!
The frame's angle of inclination can be changed in the full range from 90 to -90 degrees.
The frame is held at the set up angle by tightening the four bolts on each side of the axle.
Finally the solar collector is on!
You can tilt it.
It was a good day !!
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Distributed generation and automated transactions will change how we produce and consume electricityDeveloping technology is like driving a race car: You push the machinery as fast as it’ll go, and if you can avoid a crash, a prize awaits you at the finish line. For engineers, the reward is sometimes monetary, but more often it’s the satisfaction of seeing the world become a better place.
Thanks to many such engineers driving many such race cars, a lot of progress is about to happen in an unexpected are: energy and distribution. The power grid’s interlocking technological, economic, and regulatory underpinnings were established about a century ago and have undergone only minimal disruption in the decades since. But now the industry is facing massive change.
What’s happening in this industry stems from technology improvements, economic forces, and evolving public priorities.
For about a century, affordable electrification has been based on economies of scale, with large generating plants producing hundreds or thousands of megawatts of power, which is sent to distant users through a transmission and distribution grid. Today, many developments are complicating that simple model.
At the top of the list is the availability of low-cost solar and other renewable sources of power. Generators based on these resources can be built much closer to customers. So we are now in the early stages of an expansion of distributed generation, which is already lessening the need for costly long-distance transmission. That, in turn, is making those new sources cost competitive with giant legacy power plants.
Distributed generation has long been technically possible. What’s new now is that we are nearing a tipping point, beyond which, for many applications, distributed generation will be the least costly way to provide electricity.
While it certainly helps, the declining cost of renewables and gas-fired electricity is not all that’s spurring this change. To be competitive, the entire distributed system will have to work well as a whole. Quite a few technological advances are coming together to make that possible: advanced control; more compact, smarter, and efficient performance monitoring with real-time feedback; ever-growing ability to extract actionable information from big data.
Amid this changing scene, a picture is beginning to emerge of what a typical electrical grid may well look like in 10 or 20 years in most of the developed world. Yes, generation will be much more decentralized, and renewables such as solar and wind will proliferate. But other aspects are also shifting. For example, the distribution network—the part of the grid to which your home and business connect—will likely become more of a negotiating platform than a system that just carries electricity from place to place. Similar trends are taking place with centralized fossil fuel production and distribution via pipeline networks.
It must be understood that decentralization is going to be neither simple nor universal. In some places, decentralization will prevail, with most customers generating much of their own energy, using solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems. Others might use small-scale wind turbines. In regions where sunlight and wind are less plentiful, natural gas may still predominate for some time. Intertwined among all of those, a continuously improving version of the legacy grid will survive for decades to come.
Many analysts expect that grid-connected, distributed solar power will be fully cost competitive with conventional forms of generation by the end of this decade.
Ultimately, the lowest-cost form of generation will dominate. But figuring out what the lowest-cost option actually is will depend on both local conditions and local decisions.
Although not everywhere on the same level and not without some steps back, generally regulators are increasingly convinced that the burning of fossil fuels leads to significant societal costs, both from the direct exposure of those living near some power plants to their noxious emissions and from greenhouse gas induced climate change. Historically, these costs were difficult to quantify. So they were typically borne not by the producers or consumers of the energy but by the victims—for example, farmers whose crops were damaged, residents of towns close to fracking operations, and a population as a whole.
There is growing public interest in understanding the true cost of pollution and possibly shifting more of it to energy producers and possibly consumers as well. Fortunately, we now have the modeling and computational capabilities to begin to put a reasonable lower limit on those costs, which gives us a defensible way to reallocate them.
Although the best strategies for reallocating those costs are still being debated, the benefits of distributed renewable generation are already very apparent—as is the feasibility. Data collected during the Pecan Street Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, indicates that a house in Austin, Texas, outfitted with solar panels typically generates 4 or 5 kilowatts during the midday hours of a sunny day in summer, which exceeds the amount of power the home typically uses during such a period.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative has as its goal making solar power cost competitive—without subsidies—by 2030. (A Chinese government agency has a similar agenda.) Specifically, SunShot’s goal is to reduce the cost of distributed, residential solar power to 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour by 2030; it costs about 18 cents today. Today, a 6-kW rooftop residential solar system in the United States typically costs between $15,000 and $20,000; the exact figure depends on where you live. According to data from the EIA, the average retail cost of electricity delivered by the grid in the United States is 12.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. So at 18 cents, rooftop-generated solar is not yet, on average, competitive with grid-delivered electricity. But many governments, for example U.S. state governments, subsidize the purchase of solar-power systems to make them competitive.
Meanwhile, many utilities are experimenting with alternative-ownership options. One is community solar, in which individual consumers buy a small number of panels in a relatively large, utility-scale system. They then get monthly credits for the electricity generated without having panels on their roofs. Another experiment, being run by CPS Energy, in San Antonio, uses rooftop solar, but CPS Energy owns the equipment and pays the homeowner for the use of the roof.
One challenge with distributed solar is storage. For electrical energy the obvious and most known solution is a battery, although there are other alternatives such as pump storage, flywheels and others. For storing solar thermal energy highly insulated double-wall tanks, phase-change materials are good options, and of course underground storage otherwise known as geoexchange. Incorporating non-traditional typically intermittent sources of power into the grid is not straightforward. For example, right now, the grid could not handle a changeover to 100 percent solar PV (even in areas where it would make sense, like the southwestern United States or the North African desert). The grid we have today was designed around sources whose output generally varies little from day to day.
The grid must evolve in other ways, too, and quickly. One of the most important trends, already well under way, is the increasing use of microgrids. A microgrid is a group of connected power sources and loads. It can be as small as an individual house or as large as a military base or college campus. Microgrids can operate indefinitely on their own and can quickly isolate themselves if a disturbance destabilizes the larger grids to which they are normally connected.
This is an important feature during both natural and man-made disasters. Consider what happened when Hurricane Ike hit the Houston-Galveston area of Texas in 2008: Blackouts were widespread, but 95 percent of the outages were caused by damage to less than 5 percent of the grid. The grid effectively distributed the effects of what was only modest equipment damage. (I have previously written about the blackout in Calgary and other similar events, pointing to the advantages of distributed generation).
This isolating capability of microgrids also promises enhanced cybersecurity. That’s because microgrids can help keep localized intrusions local, making the grid a much less appealing target for hackers.
When disaster strikes, whatever its cause, microgrids can limit the consequences. If it is not physically damaged, a microgrid can operate as long as it has access to a source of power, whether that’s the sun, or wind, or other source, ideally with a local energy storage.
In the long term, with the timing depending as much on economics and regulation as technology, it is quite possible that the grid will evolve into a series of adjoining microgrids. Utilities have proposed to build such microgrid “clusters” in, among other places, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Taiwan, a tropical island where grids are prone to storm damage. These adjoining microgrids would share power with one another and with the legacy grid to minimize energy cost and to maximize availability.
In an era of adjoining microgrids that are privately owned and operated, what will become of the utility company? There are at least two possibilities. It might simply supply power to the microgrids that need it, rather than doing that for individual customers. Or it might manage microgrids and their connections with one another and to the legacy grid. Across the United States, the concept of a utility is already being reinvented in some places as more competition is introduced. Microgrids are going to accelerate that trend.
The spread of distributed generation and the rise of microgrids will also be shaped by two other factors: the expansion of the Internet of Things and the growing influence of Big Data.
Despite the hopeful vision of the future, it would be remiss however not to point out some of the challenges. These include financial ones, regulatory ones, and technical ones. And they come in all shapes and sizes.
Software will play much bigger, in fact critical role in future energy strategy.
The biggest unknown is how swiftly the regulatory process can adapt. If it can’t move quickly enough to keep up with the technology (which happens already), expect agonizingly slow change. And what if governments try to prop up outmoded technologies with subsidies? That could drag out the process further. Some politicians even argue that regulators should artificially slow the rate of change (?!).
The United States’ National Academy of Engineering recently selected electrification as the top engineering accomplishment of the 20th century. But electrification now needs to be reengineered to meet the needs and opportunities of the 21st century. This is our chance to show that we are as good as our forebears of two, three, or four generations ago at technology, regulation, public policy, finance, and the management of change in general. And to leave to posterity a legacy as fine and enduring as the one that was left to us.
The post is mainly a reprint of the article by Robert Hebner originally published in IEEE Spectrum, which also available online at: Nanogrids, Microgrids and Big Data.
Some parts were skipped and some additions and minor edits are shown in italic.
The paper version of the article has a subtitle: "Rooftop solar, micro-grids and big data will revamp how we produce and consume electricity". If "electricity" would be substituted by general term "energy", and rooftop solar would include not only photovolataic but also solar thermal, I would 100% sign under that. All benefits of the micro-grids and utilizing big data would not only stay but even enhanced. Heating and cooling take a substantial portion of residential energy use (e.g. 40-45% in USA, 60-70% in Canada) and not negligible for commercial applications either, plus domestic hot water (12-15%). Employing solar thermal technology which is much more efficient in utilizing solar energy than PV (90%+ vs. 15-20%) is most cost effective for those applications. At the same time it will significantly reduce the demand for electricity, therefore make fluctuations in the (micro) grid much more manageable, and requirement for battery storage much lower. Resistance of such system against natural disasters and terrorist attacks will be higher. Real time data collection and advanced control methods will optimize performance. Eventually, the need for centralized energy generation will be if not eliminated completely but reduced dramatically, perhaps limited to very large commercial and industrial applications. Even those, with implementing efficient energy recovery technologies, may migrate to local grids. No more transmission losses. And big Thanks from Mother Nature.