Getting ready for power grid failure

power line with red background

Wife Chris and I have decided to install a natural gas powered 16 kWh stand-by electric generator.

Natural gas powered generators are quieter than the smaller, portable, gasoline powered types of generator. The location we have chosen for the generator, plus its quieter sound, will make it minimally obtrusive. We do not like noise and assume others feel the same way. The only time the generator will be running–other than when there is an electricity outage, of course–will be for periods of 10 minutes or less, once a week, which is part of the maintenance program. We will schedule this for a time during the middle of the day.

You might be wondering, why? Natural gas powered generators with their permanent installation are not cheap. Plus they require maintenance and upkeep. So why did we decide to do this?

Given the tenor of the times and the ways in which so much of our contemporary world is clearly breaking down, I have been giving a lot of thought to just how our quality of life is most vulnerable. It did not a lot of thought to conclude that one area in which a catastrophe would be most devastating is electricity.

Almost every aspect of our lives depends on the electricity being on. In the past we have lived in places where electrical outages were commonplace. Loss of power for even an hour is pretty inconvenient. It never happens at a good time.

We were living in New York during the Northeast blackout of 2003. When that struck we were without power for several days. That made us outage sensitive, so we subsequently invested in an emergency generator (portable, gasoline powered) and electrical transfer switch wiring. That made a world of difference in our quality of life during those frequent times when the electricity went off, sometimes for many hours.

The Achilles heel of that system was the fact that it was gasoline powered. In a widespread blackout, like the one in 2003, gasoline was hard to get because filling station pumps require electricity to work. We had to either drive outside the blackout area (too far) or find a filling station that had its own backup generator (and had not run out of gasoline to sell).

An added inconvenience was the limited number of household circuits we could power with our portable generator. We could power some of the basic circuits but we were nowhere near whole-house coverage.

With our electric-outage experience in mind I contacted the local electric utility before moving to the Madison area in 2013 to see what the outage history was like. I was told there had been only one brief outage, lasting less than an hour, in the previous ten years.

Great! I thought. We won’t be needing an emergency generator.

In the six-plus years we’ve lived here there have been a few brief outages. More than I expected from what I had been told, but nothing to get seriously bent out of shape about. So I was feeling pretty secure about our electricity supply and the unlikelihood of experiencing a serious outage.

That is, until I stumbled across a report prepared last year for the U.S. Department of Energy called An Assessment of Threats to the American Power Grid.

It detailed the four most likely ways in which the national electrical grid is vulnerable to prolonged collapse:

  • Geomagnetic storms
  • Electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) via a high altitude nuclear detonation.
  • Cyber attack.
  • Kinetic attack. (Structural damage resulting from acts of terrorism; nature, such as lightning; vandalism, such as someone shooting at transformers; etc.)

The DOE Assessment makes for some bleak and scary reading, especially when you consider that we the public are usually fed feel-good nonsense that paints a rosy picture. If these people are bad-mouthing the situation, then it must be really bad. Everything is not hunky-dory.

“Even if all the recommendations of the Congressional EMP Commission were implemented, there is no guarantee that the [national electrical] grid will not sustain a prolonged collapse. There should therefore be contingency plans for such a failure.” (Emphasis added.)

Evidently there are no contingency plans: “There should be an actionable plan in anticipation of a possible prolonged collapse of the grid—a retro-structure and a skill set to provide a framework for survival. Our sense is there is no plan.” (Emphasis added.)

So just how bad is it? I wondered. How likely is it that the national electrical grid could go down, that there could be a “prolonged collapse”? How long would the collapse last if it did? After all, in modern times we have never experienced a complete collapse of the national electrical grid. But if is possible, and there is no plan . . .

I looked into the four “postulated mechanisms” that could potentially cause grid collapse:

Geomagnetic storms. According to Science Daily, a “geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere. Associated with solar coronal mass ejections, coronal holes, or solar flares, a geomagnetic storm is caused by a solar wind shock wave which typically strikes the Earth’s magnetic field 24 to 36 hours after the event.”

Often called solar storms, these magnetic disruptions can wreak havoc on electrical equipment of all sorts, especially the essential components of the national grid. In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm blacked out large parts of northeastern North America. In 1921 there was a solar storm several magnitudes stronger than the 1989 storm. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated that if a storm of the 1921 magnitude were to strike today it would take down the entire U.S. grid. (There was no grid in 1921 like there is today.)

The 1921 Solar storm was not a unique, one-time event. NOAA is confident that a storm of that magnitude, or even greater, will eventually strike us.

Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks (EMP). An EMP of sufficient magnitude damages electrical equipment. The most likely EMP vehicle would be a high altitude nuclear detonation. From what I can gather this is the least likely thing to happen, but that might just be wishful thinking on my part.

A lightning strike is an EMP. As a result of global warming, storms are getting more frequent and more powerful. A few unluckily placed lightning strikes could leave us in the dark a long time.

Cyber attacks. A cyber attack is an assault launched against computer networks and systems. As might be expected, the electric grid is managed by computers from stem to stern.

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Not long ago Russian hackers took down a large part of the Ukrainian electric grid. The damage, destruction and loss was enormous. It has been suggested that the Russians could take down the U.S. grid whenever they want to.

A power company in the Midwest hired a group of white hat hackers known as RedTeam Security to test power company’s defenses against hacking and sabotage. The team was able to break into buildings and hack into the power company’s network with relative ease. They were able to gain full access and could have easily done serious and permanent damage, plunging the entire region into darkness for an indeterminate time.

Kinetic Attacks. These are old fashioned methods like bombs, fire, bullets, and so on. A few years ago in California someone with a high powered rifle took down a large power transformer by simply shooting at it. Much of the region was without power for months.

Speaking of transformers, they are a critical component of the transmission system. They adjust the electric voltage to a suitable level on each segment of the power transmission from generation to the end user. They are essential to the transmission of electricity across the grid.

High voltage transformers (HVTs), sometimes referred to as large power transformers (LPTs), are big and heavy. They weigh between 110 and 410 tons, and cost millions of dollars apiece. They are all uniquely designed so they cannot be mass produced, and it can take up to two years to make one.

There are approximately 80 to 90 of these LPTs in use across the country. They are essential to the U.S. electric grid. Because they are huge, transporting them from the point of manufacture to their destination in the grid is costly and expensive.

Making them is even more problematic. It can take up to two years to make one of these LPTs. That is, if the materials required to make them are immediately available. (Don’t even get me started on the problems associated with electrical steel, a special steel that is an essential ingredient of all LPTs.) Keep in mind there can be no economy of scale with these things because each one is unique. They must be designed and built for the particular requirements of where they are to be used.

It would seem reasonable to make a large power transformer in place, where it is needed. But that is impossible. There are only a couple of manufacturers in the world capable of making the largest LPTs. One is in South Korea and the other in Germany.

The German manufacturing firm is Siemens. In an impressive 568 page company publication they state that LPTs have a lifespan of around 35 or 40 years, and approximately 70 percent of the LPTs in the U.S. are at or past their end of service date.

The publication cited above says the entire U.S. grid would go down with the loss of no more than eight or nine LPTs. Yikes! Think about it. Around 60 of our LPTs are outdated and could fail at any time. And most of the rest of them are approaching that point.

Call me Chicken Little, but I find that more than a little scary.

From what I have learned over the past few months there is no doubt in my mind that we are going to experience more frequent and longer lasting electric outages. (I haven’t even mentioned the aging, inadequate, and sorely neglected infrastructure of our national grid of which the LPTs are a part.)

What to do? The first thing I wanted to know was if the electric utility had any kind of program, or perhaps suggestions about how to deal with outages, especially an extended outage which might even be nationwide, and might last for months or even years.

The utility’s manager courteously responded to all my questions in a timely manner, but what he had to say was not comforting. In his words, they were a small electric distribution company. It has little to no control over the supply of electricity to them. If they can’t get electricity, game over for them.

So! If an extended power outage is a real possibility, what’s to be done? Do we really want to make a sizable investment in time and money to install a permanent, natural-gas fueled stand-by electric generator? After all, the national electric grid has never totally gone down, and local outages have never been very long-term. It’s never happened; maybe it never will.

First I looked at it from an actuarial perspective. We have paid and lot in premiums over the years for life insurance, even though neither of us has ever actually died. Same with fire insurance, auto insurance, health insurance, and so on. We’ve had some claims over the years but we’ve certainly never recouped the total cost of the insurance premiums.

The way we’ve usually looked at it was that we were insuring against catastrophe. The ramifications of a possible catastrophic event were far more horrendous than paying the insurance premiums.

I believe the same applies to electricity. To be without it is one of the most disruptive and potentially dangerous conditions I can imagine. Or in some ways, that I can’t imagine. Things can happen that were undreamed of just the day before.

Like the sudden appearance of a new virus for which no one has immunity. As I write this Chris and I have isolated ourselves at home due to the Coronavirus outbreak. I don’t know how long we are going to have to be holed up here, but I would not want to do it without electricity.

We finally decided to get the generator if we could be confident there would be gas to power it. I wanted to hear from Madison Gas & Electric as to whether or not they could continue to provide gas in an extended power outage. It was difficult to get them to answer my questions but I kept badgering them until they did. Their answer: Their ability to provide gas is not dependent upon electricity from the grid. They do have to power the gas pumps with electricity, but they have some very large stand-by generators for that. I have to take their word for it that they can continue to deliver gas even with the electricity is off.

I did ask, a couple of times, just how long they would be able to provide gas with the electricity off. That question never got answered.

So we decided to install a permanent stand-by generator. One that is capable of powering our whole house. As long as there is natural gas we will not have to be without heat or air conditioning, refrigeration, light, hot water, computers, charged cell phones, CPAP, and so on.

Solar panels and whole house batteries would be a better solution but that option is not presently available to us because the homeowners’ association voted against allowing solar panels. We would prefer solar because it is renewable. But instead we will have to burn fossil fuel. (I have wondered how many of the homeowners’ association members who voted against solar own MG&E stock.)

Wind power is out of the question for the present circumstances. That just leaves natural gas

By the way, potable water was of concern to me in case of an outage. Local water company told me they have natural gas powered generators that back-up several of their water-well pumps. They can continue to supply water as long as there is gas.