California Fires and Electrical Reliability Around The World

  • Thread starter anorlunda
  • Start date
  • Featured

anorlunda

Mentor
Insights Author
Gold Member
7,527
4,253
Summary
Are the blackouts in California the result of inferior design and practices in the USA electricity grid?
One of the big news stories this week is the pre-emptive blackouts in California. Some commentators have said such events could never happen in their country. Why do we read of USA electric supply problems more often than in some other countries?
  1. Are there significant differences in practices and design in different countries?
  2. Does anyone have non-anecdotal electric reliability statistics for several countries or regions?
  3. How do non-electric factors like population density, geography, weather, economics, influence electric reliability?
To discuss this accurately, we must distinguish between transmission and distribution. The power transmission grid moves power from remote power plants to your city or area. Power distribution, then moves the power from a substation to your building. Failures in the transmission system blackout a whole city, state, region, country or continent. Failures in distribution blackout a single house, or one street, or a neighborhood. The 3 questions apply separately to transmission and distribution.

I want to stress that this thread is not about personal anecdotes, but statistics that apply to entire populations. Some of us live in multifamily buildings in urban or suburban areas. Some of us live in places as wild and remote as possible. The broad range in a public forum makes comparison of personal experiences not meaningful.
 
10,937
4,448
The wires stretch and sag as they get hot too making it easier to come in contact with trees. There are sensors that can measure the sag dynamically without getting impacted by the EM fields surrounding the wires.


 

anorlunda

Mentor
Insights Author
Gold Member
7,527
4,253
That's true. Sag primarily effects transmission, not so much for distribution. Ice on the wires in winter also causes sag.

I believe that last years fires in California were triggered by neighborhood distribution lines, not transmission lines. The 2003 blackout that started in Ohio, was indeed triggered by transmission lines sagging.

To help us remember the diversity of the topic, I'll post a few pictures. The 3 questions in #1 apply to all these circumstances.

Power transmission, showing area cleared of trees. The height of the trees determine the width of the cleared area.
1570715795069.png



A traditional neighborhood may still have overhead power lines.
1570715922227.png



Most modern neighborhoods have underground utilities.
1570716051647.png



High density. Almost always underground.
1570716222006.png


Utility tree trimming around distribution lines. The locals protest if the trees are clear cut instead of trimmed.
1570716487526.png


Edit: I almost forgot. In addition to sag, transmission lines sway from side to side in high winds.
 
33,379
9,103
Trends in power outages
Two interesting quotes:
[...] over the last decade, Americans have had to endure more power outages, and of longer duration, than any other developed nation in the world.
[...]
In some cases, those outages were simply due to the increasing severity of such storms, but there is also another factor at work - the aging and weakening of the entire electrical infrastructure.
Caveat: This was written by a company selling diesel generators.

German Outages Are 12 Minutes Per Customer/Year
For Japan it is just 4 minutes (from the previous article). The article doesn't give a direct comparison, but from the long-term outages alone the US average must be over one hour, and I think I saw ~2-3 hours per year being reported a while ago. That's a factor 10-15 above Germany and a factor 30-50 higher than Japan.
Why Does NA Have So Many Blackouts?
Someone from Duke Energy emailed the ECOreport to say that in the US “most electric service is above ground covering vast expanses, and weather frequently knocks down lines and disrupts service. In most of the developed world, reliability is almost never impacted by generation disruptions.”
 

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
Thanks for posting this thread. I had a rant ready for the thread in the Mentor's forum, but the issue deserves a public airing.
Summary: Are the blackouts in California the result of inferior design and practices in the USA electricity grid?

I want to stress that this thread is not about personal anecdotes, but statistics that apply to entire populations.
Well, it's also about policy, and that's what my rant is about, with respect to the current blackout:

The US isn't a 2nd/3rd world country. Our power grid is reliable -- even if other 1st world countries' are more reliable*. IMO, the expectation of a reliable power grid is one of the hallmarks of being a 1st world country: We get mad and we whine when we lose power. In 2nd/3rd world countries, it isn't like that. They expect to lose power. It happens all the time and they act like it isn't a big deal -- because they expect it. I've experienced it, and it's bizarre to someone who doesn't expect it, to watch people react as if it is normal**.

2nd/3rd world countries have unreliable power precisely because they aren't developed enough to have it. They don't have enough money to have grids with a high degree of redundancy. Their governments are not strong and free of corruption to ensure construction codes are followed. I sympathize, but that's not our reality, and it's not what is causing the current blackout, or more broadly the higher than typical rate for developed countries.

The current blackout infuriates me because California/PSE&G have chosen to make unreliable power a reality. They've chosen to make Californians deal with things people in the US shouldn't have to deal with. It's worse than in a 2nd/3rd world country because in a 2nd/3rd world country they don't really have a choice, and they at least are trying to fix it. We do have a choice, and we've decided not to try and fix it.

/endrant
Some commentators have said such events could never happen in their country. Why do we read of USA electric supply problems more often than in some other countries?
Please note, per my framing above, I think there are two very, very different issues at work here. I would say that a system that is switched-off manually is *not* unreliable under a strict definition because by definition unreliability is the rate of unplanned outages (again, this is why it infuriates me).

The current blackout is happening because the operators *think* they might experience a reliability (and safety) problem, not because they actually did.

By a broader definition - which I would expect to see in statistics - any outage should be counted. This includes somewhat planned rolling blackouts due to lack of capacity as well as pure unforeseen accidents.

*Poorly-planned over-implementation of intermittent renewables may change that.

**Similar situation: I once did some subcontracting for an Indian in-sourcing company in Philadelphia. I spent a few weeks working in their office. One day, the air conditioning went out on a warm day. Nobody batted an eyelash. Except me, of course. I all but flipped-out, and eventually went home. I want to say it was 85F in there when I left, but I can't remember for sure.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
A concise summary of the problems as I see them:
1. Bad policy that doesn't enforce capacity requirements to avoid rolling blackouts (I don't think that's as common as it used to be).
2. Bad maintenance/construction policy that prioritizes construction costs over long term costs and reliability in some cases.
3. Shortsighted/provincial/NIMBY concerns such as aesthetics.
4. In the case of the current blackout, an overly litigious society (that one's new).

An example of #2 and/or #3:

...trees.
Yeah. It's ridiculous how we deal with trees:

4e937a2a19be4.image.jpg


This happens to be Califonria, but it's like this everywhere in the US. A few things to note:

-This has to be trimmed yearly.
-Clearly, if these power lines fall, they can go nowhere else but into the tree.
-The tree is *directly below* the power line. Which came first doesn't even matter: we should not have trees planted directly below power lines.

Removing/avoiding trees below or within a certain distance of power lines would be an easy way to both save money and improve reliability.
 

anorlunda

Mentor
Insights Author
Gold Member
7,527
4,253
Wow, @russ_watters shows that it is almost impossible to draw a boundary around these questions. Broader issues always become important. Let me say just a few things.

I predicted this last April.
The California fire problem is serious and difficult. If I was the PG&E risk manager, I would not depend on technology to protect my company from liability. I would order the whole grid to be shut down in all counties where and when the fire risk is red. Of course that would get me tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.
Who to blame? In the USA, regulators (e.g. public service commission) dictate policies such as prioritization of capital costs versus other costs, tree trimming, and much more. The PSC acts to make voters happy. Voters are almost never informed that their desires may have negative consequences. Everyone likes to say "The lights will stay on no matter what we do or don't do."

A root issue here is habitability of certain regions. In some parts of the country, there are severe problems providing adequate electric/water/sewer infrastructure. In some places, recurring flooding is inevitable. California has fires, mudslides, earthquakes all in the same year.

No entity such as PG&E has the authority to declare, "Northern California should never have been inhabited." Government mandates that they provide service to nearly every square mile within the borders regardless of difficulties.

No government is brave enough to say something like, "No more people. Arizona is full." The federal government and the voters would strike them down if they did say it.

Even international organizations have no stomach to say, "Earth is overpopulated. The sustainable population is 1 billion people."

See what I mean about a boundary around the issue?

Thanks for the data. We're getting closer.

The first link includes only blackouts affecting 1 million or more people; thus transmission. But most complaints come from chronic distribution problems, that may effect only a few hundred people per incident, but many more incidents. Even the following curve cuts off at 10000 customers.

1570729137411.png


That data is consistent with the part I am most familiar with: New York City, Manhattan Island, blacked out in 1965, 1977, and 2003. 3 times in 38 years.

The second link you gave is closer to the problem because it is at the customer level, but the list seems to be limited to 3rd world countries. The link below comes closer. It has EU data (0.6 interruptions per business per year) but is is missing data for North America.

 

fresh_42

Mentor
Insights Author
2018 Award
11,581
8,045
The second one has data, depending on year and e.g. continent (scroll down). The main problem with the second source is, that it only says something about companies, i.e. economic data. Since those are mainly in high populated areas in the US, and outages rarely happen in e.g. big cities, the data are not broad enough. I was looking for a measure in total man-years, the accumulated sum of outage times per capita and time period, but couldn't find any. Maybe one has to look for the data of statistical offices by country. We have such offices here (on state as well as on national level) and I assume the US, too.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
Wow, @russ_watters shows that it is almost impossible to draw a boundary around these questions. Broader issues always become important. Let me say just a few things.

I predicted this last April.

Who to blame? In the USA....
Yep, you got it. The only thing I didn't explicitly see in what you described that I think is important is litigiousness -- but it's implied in your prediction.

Perhaps if PG&E were penalized for outages they would have calculated a different optimal course of action.
 

phyzguy

Science Advisor
4,288
1,269
The current blackout is happening because the operators *think* they might experience a reliability (and safety) problem, not because they actually did.
Of course this is true, but if you were running PG&E, what would you do? They have had to declare bankruptcy due to their liability from last year's fires. Should they just let it happen again? It hasn't rained here since May, so all of the land is tinder-dry. The smallest spark will start another wildfire. I live in California, so I am directly impacted by it, but I'm not sure what we expect PG&E to do. Wave a magic wand and bury all the power lines overnight so they don't blow down in high winds?
 

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
Of course this is true, but if you were running PG&E, what would you do?
I'd almost certainly make the same decision.

I'm not blaming PG&E. I think they are among the least responsible for this situation because they are heavily regulated and they have very little control over how they do business. For example, they aren't allowed to decide that it's stupid to plant a tree under a power line and then shape it every year into a hollow U, only to have it catch fire when the wind blows the power line into it, or it onto the power line -- but they can get sued for it. They aren't allowed to decide they want to raise their rates in order to upgrade their infrastructure -- but they can get sued for it. They aren't allowed to change building codes to force people who build houses in fire-prone areas to build them out of less combustible materials so they don't go up like a tiki-torch from the slightest spark -- but they can get sued for it.

I blame the state and people of California -- though I'm not naive and realize many if not most others are making similar mistakes.
Wave a magic wand and bury all the power lines overnight so they don't blow down in high winds?
The problem didn't start overnight and yes it is unreasonable to expect it to be fixed overnight. Decades of neglect and mismanagement by the state and people of California will take decades to undo, if they even choose to undo it.
 

dlgoff

Science Advisor
Gold Member
3,724
1,618
I predicted this last April.
I would order the whole grid to be shut down in all counties where and when the fire risk is red. Of course that would get me tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.
I'd like to know, how is this decision's effect any different than load shedding?

Standard EOP-003-2— Load Shedding Plans,
 

anorlunda

Mentor
Insights Author
Gold Member
7,527
4,253
I'd like to know, how is this decision's effect any different than load shedding?

Standard EOP-003-2— Load Shedding Plans,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolling_blackout
The difference is in duration. Underfrequency load shedding typically lasts only a few minutes until balance is restored.

The red flag fire condition could last much longer. Weeks? Months?

Obviously, duration is very important to consumers and businesses.
 
349
55
Well if anyone is interested , I live in Latvia, we are part of the EU for some time now , formerly USSR. Most of our electrical infrastructure is from the USSR and lots of (mostly transmission/distribution) have been changed over the years and upgraded. We have the luxury of being in a modest climate with average temperatures and very rare occasions of severe weather, (which tend to shift towards a more frequent weather anomalies due to climate change, this I can report with certainty from my own experience) Our grid is mostly 330kV lines with step down to 110kV for smaller cities and 20kV for inner city and rural areas, then the distribution is then 20kV to 0.4kV or 400v 3 phase with 230 volt single phase , in other words just as in most other EU and Russia. Currently we are interconnected with Lithuania (where HBO Chernobyl was filmed) and on the north with Estonia which is then connected with Scandinavia. Most of our power comes from 3 medium sized Hydro plants located o0n a single and very predictable and stable river, not counting local circuit breaks and small tree falls on local 20Kv lines we haven't had a blackout (major one that affects more than half the country with a population of 2 million) for more than 10 years.
The last one happened in 2005 after a severe storm ,since then they cleared most trees and now they built a new 330Kv line in my region so this has been made even less of a possibility.

I can say that it seems Hydro is among the most reliable power sources for electricity, our plants haven't had an accident since they were opened and everything that is done is routine inspection and upgrade.


I also have to agree with @russ_watters and @anorlunda, I too think that if people choose to live in places where the climate is severe they also have to keep in mind that these places come with a cost just like for rich people hiring bodyguards is a thing. In our country also some very rich people live right next to the sea in lavish houses , some of which are literally meters away from water but nobody gives a damn when they get flooded or lose electricity because there is plenty of nice land to live on yet when one goes over his way to pay billing fees and arrange a house next to sea one also has to take into account the risks involved.

It is really funny to watch people trying to be woke about climate and saving trees yet at the same time on purpose living their life in a way and in a place that only makes it worse for both themselves and the climate.


PS. @russ_watters , when you said that 85F was enough for you to leave work, well I work out in a gym with no AC and sometimes in summer I make a full workout routine in 85F, how about survival of the fittest? :D
 
349
55
PS. surely this is a stupid suggestion but I can't understand why everyone (well many people) have moved to Cali and now they are whining about the conditions , as far as I know the USA has plenty of land in the middle and lots of normal cities with average climate,

also @russ_watters I would disagree that such a planned shutdown is not the same as having an unreliable grid, surely there are many factors involved like weather, grid condition etc but if you have to turn something off for the fear of there being problems that for me is the very definition of unreliable, otherwise why would you turn it off especially if it is something as vital for society and modern economy as a power grid.
 
156
61
Who to blame? In the USA, regulators (e.g. public service commission) dictate policies such as prioritization of capital costs versus other costs, tree trimming, and much more.
I had no idea PSC's had such authority over utilities' business decisions. There is certainly the question of just how independent the PSC's are from the utilities they regulate. I'm sure there are lobbyists doing their best to convince PSC members that the utility just won't survive if they can't raise rates/cut maintenance expenditures, etc. I'm also sure that we would consider some of the methods used to convince them to be unethical. Sort of like the military-industrial complex, in a different venue.

Regarding the issue of litigation, I feel that if a company's equipment starts a fire that kills over a hundred people, then civil action should be only a start. Whether it was the utility's management who decided that tree-trimming was not really that important, or the PSC, if a few people went to jail it would be a big encouragement for everyone to act more responsibly in the future.
 

anorlunda

Mentor
Insights Author
Gold Member
7,527
4,253
@sandy stone ,
You should study the history a bit. Public utilities in the USA operate as regulated monopolies. That gives government great (but not total) control over how they operate. In return, the utility is granted a guaranteed return on investment (profit). Their price is cost plus a markup.

In practice some PUC s have a staff with a 400 to 1 ratio of lawyers to engineers. That makes them pretty clueless about the technical issues, and unable to do the best job of regulating technical issues. Speaking as an engineer, I would prefer a 1 to 400 ratio 😀
---
If we have a region that is a tinderbox, given weather and amount if dry fuel on the ground, I think a fire is inevitable. It could be triggered by a match, or lightning, or a sparking wire, or dozens of other ways. It is not a question of if there is a fire, but where, when and how.

Does it make sense to allocate all the liability to the trigger source? None of the liability to people who build in fire prone or flood prone locations? No share of liability to forrest management policies that allow dry fuel to accumulate?

In other torts like auto accidents, we often allocate shares of the liability to several parties.

I know the question is sensitive. If this thread gets too hot, I'll move it to general discussion.
 
1,339
327
The system was originally designed and structured as a completely regulated Utility - where the "mission" was to safely deliver reliable electrical energy.

By deregulating the Utilities they make their mission about profit - that is what the shareholders expect. In a true non-utility business it's success and failure is practically irrelevant to public benefit and safety ( dare I say the public welfare). It is now less expensive for the Power Companies to spend a million on lobbying and debating with the PUCs, swaying public opinion - etc.. than to spend in operational costs necessary to ensure safety and reliability. Basically profit is competing with safety and when this dichotomy is implemented, over time they may perhaps actually balance, but that balance is not static, it tips one way then the other, and when the Safety is loosing we find it unacceptable. We can not make Safety First and Profit First at the same time.

IMO -The idea that all of societies necessities can be properly served through free market structures is patently false.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
Regarding the issue of litigation, I feel that if a company's equipment starts a fire that kills over a hundred people, then civil action should be only a start. Whether it was the utility's management who decided that tree-trimming was not really that important, or the PSC, if a few people went to jail it would be a big encouragement for everyone to act more responsibly in the future.
It's difficult (typically impossible) to sue the government because for the most part, by definition, their decisions are legal. So if the government requires the utility to allow trees to grow directly under and around power lines, there's nobody to sue except the utility if they spark a fire - even though it is really the government's fault.

...or perhaps the owner of the tree, but unless that's a large corporation, there is no point in suing them because you can't make much money suing someone who doesn't have much money.

Of course the government can change either end of that if it chooses to; either re-write the clearances code or indemnify the utility against lawsuits or both.
 
Last edited:

russ_watters

Mentor
18,848
5,037
also @russ_watters I would disagree that such a planned shutdown is not the same as having an unreliable grid...
I agree that for statistical purposes it should be counted the same, but in terms of the logic of how I think of it, it is different and worse than a normal power outage. Perhaps I just can't think of a good way to articulate it, but it seems to me the media, public, and government of California agree given the unusually high backlash they got over this outage.
 
349
55
By far the best civilian goods have been produced in societies that have been largely moral and ruled by a free market system with plenty of opportunities.
But there are few exceptions to this and they are almost always complicated projects, sometimes the free market doesn't work as good with respect to such projects, so entities that don't have cost or revenue as their primary factors can surpass them, like for example the USSR with it's first man in space and many achievements and then later the US with NASA and man on the moon , I doubt these achievements would have been made possible if they were left to free market alone.

The same sadly can be said about nuclear energy, Fukushima should have been placed a bit higher up the shore side and the diesels could have been easily put much higher but sure that would have cost more but it would have definitely saved the plant since there was no major structural damage apart from cut outside power and non working on site diesels.


On the other hand governments , especially the Soviet one have screwed up alot of things simply because the people who run the "show" have no personal interest in the things they often have authority over, like the series of flaws of the RBMK reactors and Chernobyl accident which apart from the operators was mostly a long term political screw up since noone in the higher "corridors" gave 2 cents about what happens in a remote area far far away.

So my conclusion is none , private companies tend to screw up large projects because of revenue while governments tend to be slow and sometimes ignorant.
I think this has to be a team play situation where citizens push the initiative and the government helps with resources and funds, in our global world large projects involve multiple entities I think long gone are the days where a few men from a small company can make all the difference, also long gone are the days where one can simply wait for bureaucrats to "guide" everything int he right direction.
 

Want to reply to this thread?

"California Fires and Electrical Reliability Around The World" You must log in or register to reply here.

Related Threads for: California Fires and Electrical Reliability Around The World

  • Posted
2 3 4
Replies
99
Views
4K
  • Posted
Replies
4
Views
742
  • Posted
Replies
8
Views
1K
Replies
2
Views
6K
  • Posted
Replies
3
Views
804
  • Posted
Replies
12
Views
1K
Replies
1
Views
467
Replies
1
Views
1K

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving

Hot Threads

Top