Sandy: An Eye-Opener for the Power Grid

Nov 26, 2012 | Updated Jan 26, 2013

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Northeast, untold thousands of buildings and facilities were catastrophically damaged. But beyond this striking physical toll, Sandy also left millions of people without electricity. Relatively unscathed schools and businesses couldn't open. Parents couldn't work. Otherwise perfectly functional gas stations couldn't access their tanks and wholesale gas couldn't be pumped into trucks for distribution.

What is at the root of all of these problems? Power.

While Sandy was a "superstorm" that resulted from a set of uncommon meteorological circumstances, it was simply the most recent time that our nation's most populated corridor experienced massive power outages. One year ago nearly to the day, New England experienced a Halloween snowstorm that put millions in the dark for days. And, in June, residents of the mid-Atlantic dealt with massive power outages when a summer storm tore through the area.

The absolute paralysis that our economy and our country experiences during these prolonged and widespread outages exposes an extreme vulnerability. In fact, many have even speculated that our power grid could even be a next line of attack for terrorists.

While utility companies have poured extraordinary resources into getting the grid up and running, it is not a lack of manpower or dedication that has left so many without power for so long. Nor is it irresponsibility on the part of utilities. There are a myriad of factors over the past century that have presented us with the utility grid we have today. In many ways, it is spectacularly successful and a miraculous construction of man; key pieces of its machinery have operated successfully for 30, 40, 50 years or more. But in other ways, it is surprisingly delicate; overhead distribution lines can be brought down by the thousands by windstorms, ice or snow. As with any engineered system, when a spectacular failure occurs, it is time to examine and evaluate.

Exactly such a re-thinking occurred after the Great Blizzard of 1888 that devastated New York City with over 40 inches of snow and up to 50-foot drifts. Trains were halted and power lines were downed. The result was an infrastructure revamp on a grand scale, with overhead power lines and street-level trolleys being replaced by underground power cables and subway systems.

Now, nearly 125 years later, we must strengthen our transmission and distribution system once again.

The flooding caused by Sandy may be one of her key lessons. Utility substations are, with few exceptions, all above-ground structures, with transformers, circuit breakers, and other large heavy pieces of electrical equipment mounted on solid earth. While coastal utilities have generally taken historic flood levels into account when designing their substations, Sandy proved the maxim that records are meant to be broken. With water flooding places meant to be kept dry, catastrophic failure events occurred. A number of spectacular explosions at substations were well covered by the news media during the height of Sandy's machinations.

Such major failure events, particularly in urban substations, point out one unique weakness of many urban power grids. Many large urban distribution systems were established as islanded -- or hub-and spoke -- grids with no facilities for substations to back-up one another. A substation serves as an interconnection between high voltage transmission lines and the lower voltages used to distribute power to industries, commercial buildings and residential customers. Depending on its size, an urban substation can serve a neighborhood or several neighborhoods. Most often, however, all the electric power to that area is dependent on that one substation. While various design elements are in place to accommodate more "normal" events, multiple equipment failures can occur, resulting in the wholesale substation outages we've experienced during these extreme weather events.

Utilities see the benefits of interconnecting urban distribution substations. This network approach would allow adjacent substations to provide power when the primary substation for an area has experienced a major equipment outage. The additional layer of redundancy would make the grid more resilient and allow urban economies to continue to function in spite of accidents, severe weather or even acts of willful destruction.

Until recently, however, these types of interconnections were impractical to impossible. The interconnecting links must be able carry the full amount of power needed by the entire substation. This requires the use of dozens of conventional cables and necessitates large underground right-of-ways, which often don't exist due to existing water, sewer, gas, subway and other infrastructure. Even if that issue were overcome, the simple process of connecting substations can significantly increase the severity of a fault.

Just as the U.S. Department of Energy and the utility industry embraced the Smart Grid communications and control systems, more advanced technologies are required -- and available -- for the physical power delivery network. Superconductor power cables are a prime example. Cables made with superconductor wire provide the means for a smarter, more powerful and more reliable power grid for the century ahead.

Superconductor cables can carry up to 10 times the power of conventional cables, and they are completely benign to the environment. They can greatly reduce right-of-way requirements. And, superconductor cables also are inherently able to limit high power faults, making them ideal for interconnecting urban substations.

This technology is now being rapidly deployed elsewhere -- in countries like China, Korea, Germany and Japan -- with strong government support. And industry analysts expect that hundreds of millions will be invested in these systems over the next decade.

We must respond to the recent confluence of meteorological forces with a confluence of motivational forces. Utilities, the U.S. government and manufacturers like AMSC must work together to boost adoption of solutions like superconductor power cables, which will lead to dramatic price reductions and countless new American clean technology jobs.

Two of the utilities hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy -- Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and Consolidated Edison (ConEd) -- have begun the process by being among the first in the U.S. to begin implementing this super-smart technology with support from AMSC, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. While these two projects serve as critical demonstrations of the power of superconductors, strategic implementations of these solutions throughout urban power grids are required to truly enhance network resiliency and reliability.

It is unfortunate that it takes an event like Sandy to remind us once again about the vulnerability of our power grid, but this is an opportunity to rebuild and reenergize. While we have implemented many "smart grid" solutions, the focus thus far has been on communications, monitoring and metering. It is time now to turn our focus toward the physical structure... the actual power grid itself. We need to implement new solutions that will make our power supplies reliable in extreme weather and resilient to willful acts of destruction, while also being able to handle our 21st century power demands.