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Keeping the lights on: Texas-like outage unlikely here

Long, Texas-sized power outage likely couldn’t happen here

Pennsylvania and the East Coast are not as susceptible to catastrophic failure of the electrical grid like was experienced by Texas last month.

More than 4.5 million residences and businesses in Texas lost power — some for multiple days — and nearly 50 people died when frigid weather caused the state’s electrical grid to fail.

Nilanjan Ray Chaudhuri, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State, studies power grids, which he says are the largest machines man has built, noting they spread over thousands of square miles and involve many intricate parts.

He and other experts on the electrical system — like Jeff Shields of PJM Interconnection, which manages the electrical grid serving Pennsylvania and 12 other states, and Todd Meyers of Penelec, which provides the lines serving more than 119,000 customers in Blair and surrounding counties — agree that maintaining and planning electrical service is a tough task.

Chaudhuri studies “cascading failures” in the electrical grid, such as blackouts, and has recently become one of the leaders to develop ways to more accurately locate failures in the grid system, get the grid back on line quickly following a failure and prevent failures from occurring.

He is collaborating on research with Tom La Porta, director of the Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Ting He, associate professor of computer science and engineering.

The group is the recipient of a $999,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Four grids serve nation

There are four electrical grids serving the United States, one for the East, one for the West and one each serving Alaska and Texas, Chadhuri said.

When a failure occurs in Pennsylvania, PJM can seek electricity across state lines to fill in the gaps.

Texas’ grid system that is not connected to other states. It is an island of its own operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Texas’ electrical generators also were not winterized or prepared for cold weather, so when temperatures dropped dramatically and the demand for heat and electricity spiked, coal piles, wind turbines and natural gas systems froze.

With no grids to assist in restoring power, millions of residents found themselves without heat and light. Damage, including frozen pipes, is estimated at $20 billion or higher.

“Bad news comes in many forms. You had peak load come at the same time. Power plants shut down … and did not carry enough cushion to meet the load,” Chaudhuri said.

It was “the perfect storm,” he said.

But this wasn’t the first time Texas experienced possible failure of its grid.

Similar situations occurred in 2011, when a cold wave hit, and in 2014 when a polar vortex caused temperatures to plummet 30 or 35 degrees below normal.

According to news reports, Texas’ power companies opposed changes in the system recommended by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after 2011 and the Texas Public Utility Commission after 2014.

The PUC wanted energy companies to identify weak links that could pose problems during periods of low temperatures.

Those proposed regulations were modified and never became effective.

Also, Texas was slow to weatherize its facilities.

“Texas had a capacity problem,” Chaudhuri said, and when asked if this type of failure could occur in the East, he said, “This is never going to be a problem in the East and West.”

But, he explained, that doesn’t mean there won’t be backouts or failures involved in the electrical grids, and he said plans have to be developed to address ways to deal with the loss of various energy sources during periods of stress.

The power grid receives energy from coal, natural gas, oil, solar, wind, nuclear facilities and other renewables.

What happens, if for instance, a wind farm is suddenly lost to the system, Chaudhuri posed, and if other sources are suddenly lost.

These are questions investigators like him must consider, he said.

Reliability rewarded

Planning is an important part of maintaining the grid, according to Shields, the PJM spokesperson, who explained his company has a program to pay generators to fix identified problems three years ahead of time, and it is financially structured to reward those who meet their commitments.

The PJM grid system has worked well over the years, but Shields noted, the closest it came to a Texas-sized disaster occurred during the 2014 polar vortex when a great rush of cold air came from the north and caused outages.

He called that a “very stressful time.”

Most people are concerned about what happens in their towns or neighborhoods where trees falling on lines can wipe out power for hours, or even days, and that’s where Penelec comes into the picture, according to Meyers.

“We do not operate any power plants,” he said.

The company provides the high voltage lines, substations and distribution lines to the customers.

In the Altoona area, Penelec transmits power to 56,000 customers in Blair County; 34,500 in Clearfield County; 15,000 in Bedford County and 13,600 Huntingdon County.

It’s like a sprinkler system for your yard, Meyers explained, with the hose serving as the high voltage line, the sprinkler system as the substation and the water coming out the sprinkler serving the customer.

Penelec, he said, works hard to weatherize its system.

Prepping for winter

In late October, Penelec examines its substations using a thermal imaging camera, which can detect possible weaknesses, or “hot spots,” in the equipment.

The idea is to replace parts that may fail when they are pressed into service on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week routine.

Employees are sent to inspect the heaters, circuit breakers, transformers and relay equipment in the substation.

They also inspect battery banks “used to power relays that sense faults on the network and motors that automatically operate switches to isolate those problems,” according to information provided by Meyers in a news release last November.

Penelec also inspects lines and poles by helicopter, seeking to spot cross arms that may fail during stressful weather.

And the company has an extensive tree-trimming routine throughout the year.

Meyers reported the company spent $38 million trimming trees and that lines are inspected every five years in an effort to eliminate possible tree damage.

He said Penelec cut timber along 4,500 miles of road in 2020 and will spend up to $200 million through 2024 replacing poles and installing new wires.

Preparation for winter also included making sure the trucks used by workers are ready to respond to problems that often occur in isolated areas.

“Our trucks have to be ready to go. This is the kind of stuff we do,” he said.

PJM works with hundreds of plants to provide electricity to the grid, and “We are connected to the western grid — so we can export and import power.”

“Texas was not built for that flexibility,” he said.

He said Penelec also conducts storm drills.

“We do exercises so when something happens, we are ready to go,” he concluded.

Looking at the past, Meyers said, “we had some pretty cold weather. … The power continues to flow.”

Smaller outages

On Monday, equipment at Penelec’s Park Plaza substantiation experienced an 36-minute disruption to electric service for 3,200 customers in the Altoona-Hollidaysburg-Duncansville area.

As of Wednesday, the cause of the outage was unknown.

While these type of outages are subjects for Chaudhuri and his team to contemplate, Meyers pointed out what occurred in Texas could take years to address by extending power lines to facilities in other states.

Extending transmission lines outside of Texas will cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, and will require extensive efforts to site, permit and construct facilities, he said.

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