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Staged Blackouts

  1. Aug 7, 2017 #1

    anorlunda

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    Again and again we hear of the consequences of loss of electrical power. Frequently, the authors call for more redundancies in the power grid so that blackouts will not happen. No complex system can ever be 100% reliable. However, as systems grow from very reliable to extremely reliable, people come to treat them as absolutely reliable. (A psychological quirk?) Lack of preparedness grows and the actual consequences become more severe than necessary.

    I hear that electricity fails up to five times per day in parts of Mumbai, and that it goes almost unnoticed because the locals and businesses are so adapted, and/or so well backed-up.

    I once was a firefighter. In firefighter culture, frequent drills and practice are essential to assure that men and equipment will perform adequately in a real emergency. I also once was a pilot. In that culture, repeated contingency drills are mandatory. Where are the drills to prepare the public, businesses and government to cope with loss of power?

    I also spent most of my career in the electric power industry. In that culture, it would be a career-ender to advocate staging a general blackout as a drill. The power industry's culture is to keep the lights on at all costs. To them, the thought of a blackout drill is anathema. Now I am retired so i can speak freely. I say, staged blackout drills would produce more benefits than costs (including the cost of some deaths during the drills).

    Suppose we staged blackouts? Would the training value justify the costs, disruptions and perhaps even deaths? Fair men can argue that point. I would like to argue in favor of the drills. Given a series of repeated staged blackouts of various duration and scope, I predict that within 1-3 years, business and the public would adapt. The serious negative consequences of blackouts would almost vanish.

    As illustration, consider the relationship between Y2K and 9/11. Loss of the WTC buildings hit at the heart of Manhattan and at the heart of some corporations essential to the world economy. Many fine people died tragically. Nevertheless, the power blackout never propagated further than the city blocks of the collapse, and the off-site backup facilities of those WTC housed corporations performed almost flawlessly. If the WTC attack had happened in 1998, I believe that the consequences would have been much worse. In that sense, Y2K had the effect of a preparedness drill.

    Today, we stand on the verge of spending hundreds of billions, even a trillion, or more dollars on hardening the grid against terror attacks. Is that wise? Is that cheaper than making the country blackout resilient? Resilience makes the power grid a less appealing target for enemies.

    Consider the human factor. If we spent $1 trillion on grid security, but authors could still write scripts claiming that a teenage kid in his bedroom could bring down the whole country. Would we really feel more secure? Would spending $10 trillion make us feel more secure? Obviously not, But experiencing a blackout every month or so would make us feel very confident.

    p.s. All the arguments above can be applied to the dependence of the western world on GPS navigation. Should we be staging GPS outage drills to make ourselves resilient? Ditto for Internet dependence. As a matter of fact, where is the strategic thinking in our planning for defense against external threats?
     
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  3. Aug 7, 2017 #2

    phinds

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    I don't know enough about this to argue pro/con on your suggestion, but I'm quite confident that it will not happen, at least certainly not until there has been a major outage caused by deliberate malice. The big blackout in the Northeast some time back was pretty significant and that didn't bring it on but that was "an act of God" (abetted by poor planning in our power grid). We tend to be very reactive about these things. Compare airport security before and after 9/11
     
  4. Aug 7, 2017 #3
    Would you feel the same way if one of the deaths was a close family member? Your child, perhaps?
     
  5. Aug 7, 2017 #4

    russ_watters

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    Could you please clarify if you are advocating staged blackouts or staged blackout drills?
     
  6. Aug 7, 2017 #5
    Ain't that the truth. And become so anxious when service does go down.
    In the latest, Bell Atlantic, ( eastern Canada ) had a problem - blacked out telephone lines for a few hours - last Friday was it?( even land lines had problems for some reason ). People began calling 911 Emergency asking for "help" to see if their phone was working, and asking what was going on, tying up those centres unnecessarily.
     
  7. Aug 8, 2017 #6

    anorlunda

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    You're right of course. Any simple proposal won't win today. What we need is to inject this suggestion into the debate following every incident for the next 10 to 20 years before the idea has a chance of catching on. That is one of the reasons why reform in these industries is glacial. Mind changing takes decades.

    One possible strategy to persuade would be to characterize it as our smart strategy to combat terrorism. We think of the most disruptive things a terrorist might target, then we work to make the consequences of that less disruptive (as opposed to the old strategy of trying to make sure it never happens.)

    That's silly. Police, firemen, pilots and others suffer training-related deaths. Even school children are sometimes killed in school bus accidents. That's a part of life, but we don't let it stop us from training. Would you prefer police, firemen and pilots who only saw simulators but never a real gun/burning building/airplane? Would you prevent kids from going to school?

    Actual blackouts staged as a drill. Actual GPS outages staged as a drill. Actual Internet outages staged as a drill. Actual cell phone blackouts staged as a drill. Anything that becomes vital to the public but can never be 100% should carry the burden of keeping the public experienced on dealing with outages. Otherwise, it just becomes a huge vulnerability and a juicy target for terrorists. The consequences of an accidental outage grow out of control, and the public suffers anxiety about the threat.
     
  8. Aug 8, 2017 #7

    russ_watters

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    Then I don't agree with this strategy. The purpose of a drill is to test emergency preparedness in a controlled situation where the problem, whatever it is, doesn't manifest. To put a finer point on it: making the drill real removes the redundancy that the backup systems provide, which then requires adding an additional layer of redundancy or scheduling downtime for even critical services during the outage.

    I would much rather require by law that a hospital, for example, has an emergency preparedness plan and practices it (which i assume they do) than just cut their power every now and then to see how well they handle the real thing.
     
  9. Aug 8, 2017 #8

    anorlunda

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    That's a reasoned disagreement.

    But it is not just emergency workers who need this training, it is everybody. The accounts of other people's misfortunes are not sufficient to reveal the specific vulnerabilities of your own building or business. There really is no substitute for actual experience.

    In the aftermath of every accidental blackout, we are overwhelmed by anecdotes of people caught by surprise by consequences that they failed to anticipate. The more years that pass without actual experience, the more severe the consequences of those unforeseen consequences grow.

    Here's just a sample from the aftermath of hurricane Iwa
    Those anecdotes illustrate the kinds of things that emergency worker drills never reveal. I repeat: there is no substitute for actual experience.
     
  10. Aug 8, 2017 #9

    russ_watters

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    Thanks.
    Most people who need to deal with it already do and people who don't have chosen not to and have chosen to accept it - whether they "need to" is their decision. Everyone gets buyer's remorse right after a big purchase. That doesn't mean if they step back and analyze it critically that the buyer's remorse is accurate -- it may just be an emotional response. And here's why:
    That is a basically true as stated but still a bit misleading. The severity of the event itself might get worse if complacency leads to a drop-off in planning/preparedness, but the longer period between events is itself a reduction in severity! If you have 2 not so bad events per year that may actually be worse (more expensive/worse losses) than one bad event every 5 years. Forcing a less reliable grid on everyone for the sake of preparedness for real disasters will save some people money and cost others money.
    I agree - but actual experience can be gained in a more controlled setting than you propose. Shutting off everyone's power every now and then is a simple way to force preparedness, but in this case I would prefer:
    1. Tightening or enforcing regulations on critical services.
    2. Letting everyone else decide for themselves how critical their preparedness is.
     
  11. Aug 8, 2017 #10

    anorlunda

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    There might be no better way to tease out those better ways of gaining experience (if they exist), than proposing actual blackouts. :wink:

    A better statement of what I have in mind is not so much specific acts like staged blackouts. It is a reversal in our anti terror strategy. Instead of priority on preventing terror, I would prioritize mitigating the effects of disasters.

    In three words, resiliency over prevention.
     
  12. Aug 8, 2017 #11

    jim mcnamara

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    Nothing better than a story:

    What consumers especially hospitals and do not have - backup for natural gas. NM Gas suffered a supply outage in Feb 2011 during a wellhead freeze out situation in the Permian basin. The company shut down all lines in several communities, affecting 35000 metered services. They left lines to hospitals on. This was a calculated risk we were aware of since the 1990's. There is a disaster planning protocol and this was part of it. Turn off non-essentials first, while screaming at the suppliers in the gas producing area. Hope that they get things back up and that reserve storage tanks will last until they do. Took 6 weeks and the assistance of several gas utilities and anybody in the company with a gas license, to relight all of the customers. There were several explosions where customers tried to relight on their own. Mind you, we had ambient daytime temps below 10 °F in the service area for two days. There are still lawsuits ongoing. FERC and Homeland Security did major audits. All of the emails from the one year period previous and six weeks after are frozen, unwritable, on a special server.

    If you do not know, once gas pressure goes down in a distribution line, it becomes an explosion hazard to run any gas powered equipment equipment on that line. So lines serving hospitals and a few other critical services were left open in the entire system. A definite risk.

    Bottom line: As a utility you never want any kind of outage, ever. Russ is dead on.
    PS: FERC decided the Texas gas operation had a problem. And still does - no plan B or resiliency. That fact never really made the news.

    The disaster and idiot-caused explosions sure did.
     
  13. Aug 9, 2017 #12
    Disaster drills and other means of inculcating preparedness and resiliency are sensible measures, but deliberately triggering blackouts seems a step too far. Puts me in mind of a fire drill at a school or industrial plant. Actually setting these buildings on fire may be more effective for finding weak spots, but would perhaps be overkill.
     
  14. Aug 9, 2017 #13

    anorlunda

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    I see that I'm not garnering much support here. Consider the following.

    We are on the verge of a huge US spending binge on cybersecurity for the grid. How big? The most recent binge for "smart grid" spent about $100 billion mostly for smart meters. This binge may be as large, or several times larger. Most of the money will go to IT consultants and cybersecurity experts. At the end of the binge, there will still be no guarantee that the grid is invulnerable to attack. Indeed, organizations that claim invulnerability are considered the best prime targets. Deliberate fright stories such as Ted Koppel's recent book will be just as credible (or incredible) as before. Increasing the size of the spending binge would not change anything. There is no ceiling. So what public benefits will the spending deliver?

    I would like to consider spending the same binge money on resilience. i.e. purchase of backup power hardware, and/or other blackout effect mitigations. At the end of the spending binge, we would be better able to withstand attacks (or natural disasters) with fewer ill effects.

    Proposition: The object of terrorism is to weaken society by planting the seeds of terror, anxiety and paranoia. A society that spends its resources on prevention, encourages paranoia and inadvertently supports the terrorists. A society that spends its resources on resilience, becomes more confident and less paranoid. Public mental health is a deliverable of resilience.

    Aside: I presented my arguments as a dichotomy, but shades of grey are possible. Cybersecurity money could be spent to make the grid's computers more resilient, and thus mitigate bad effects even if they are hacked. Indeed, some of the most modern cybersecurity experts are thinking that way. That might deliver reliability benefits that engineers understand, but I believe that it would deliver zero benefit to public anxiety.
     
  15. Aug 12, 2017 #14
    I appreciate your sentiment and do not disagree that it would have a benefit to weigh along with the risk however I can see this being taken as more along the lines of replacing test dummies with live human subjects in automotive crash tests by the current energy-craving culture.

    There is a degree of blackout mitigation in a large portion of publicly occupied buildings in much of the modern world, and yet even this small measure of prevention cannot even back its own face value as testing and maintenance schedules are too frequently neglected. One will not have a lot of luck using forced outages to bring such folks into compliance either; the largest ratepayers will undoubtedly block this through political and legal channels on a vague economic grounds.

    Don't for one second expect, either, the average citizen of a western nation to willingly incur similar risks as fire, police, military, or other normally high risk occupational sectors for the purposes of training. It is evident with the continued push for seat restraints in school busses following successive accidents that even that sort of risk to children is becoming less acceptable.
     
  16. Aug 12, 2017 #15

    jim hardy

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    The bootstrap issue is quite real.

    The boiler feed pump in a decent sized steam power plant might be 7,000 horsepower. You won't start that with a portable generator, you need power from the grid . When grid goes down, Catch-22.

    After the 1965 NY blackout my company installed diesel generators at one of its fossil plants big enough to start it up. Its feedwater pumps had twin 3500 horsepower motors so 15 megawatts of diesel was enough to bootstrap it up by starting just one pump motor.

    Gas turbine units should be able to "Black Start" if they were designed to
    but it's something that should be practiced at the utility level - how do they recover from a regional blackout on their part of the grid?.
    Government 'deregulated' the utilities a few decades back . They separated generation from transmission&distribution so it's unclear to me now just who owns that particular Catch-22.

    Catch-22's are easy to build into a system without thinking. Example - nuke plant with two diesels.....
    Design philosophy of separation says the "A" diesel should have no commonality with the "B" diesel. Separate power supplies, separate starting air reservoirs, separate batteries, separate rooms and separate wires, etc . It's almost a sacred rite.
    Well - what if....
    in a blackout one of them , just pick "A", becomes cantankerous and you exhaust its starting air while trying to figure out why it won't go ?
    Sure would be nice to have a power feed to "A"'s starting air compressor from the "B" diesel. We had one.

    The devil is in the details. Anorlunda comes from a utility background as do i . Nothing flushes out a design flaw like unusual circumstances.
    I grew up in South Florida where blackouts were part of life, we expected one with every hurricane. Our utility got plenty of experience with blackouts. I guess it's different up North.

    Anyhow - we'll stumble through whatever comes.
    Summary of Emergency Management :
    "Be Prepared.
    If that fails, Scream, Shout, and Rush About. ".

    old jim
     
  17. Aug 13, 2017 #16

    Averagesupernova

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    In my opinion there is a reason why the electric utilities keep the power on 'at any cost'. If the electric utility wants to sell power, then they need to ensure that power is as reliable as possible in comparison to the competition. The example that comes to mind is as simple as a home heating system. My sister recently built a house which has an all electric heating system. Air to air heat pump and coils for resistance heating when the heat pump is not able to keep up. This is a problem when the electricity goes off, which is hardly ever. Suppose instead of resistance heating as a backup the heating system was propane or oil fired. Suddenly a small portable generator is sufficient to run this heating system. If blackouts were anticipated then the decision would have been made to switch to a fossil fuel based heating system. The end result is the utility sells less electricity. This scenario even across many thousands of houses is a drop in the bucket to the overall consumption of electric power in this country. But the general tendency across the board will be for end users to move away from something less reliable to something more reliable.
     
  18. Aug 13, 2017 #17

    jim hardy

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    Indeed. Thinking things through is not the behavior of our marketing industry.

    The slogan "Live Better Electrically" is false altruism designed to sell electric appliances , more precisely the electric power they consume.. My power company quit selling appliances in early 1950's because their retail appliance store customers complained about the competition.

    It's easier to build an all electric house - no gas pipes to run, no flues to penetrate the roof.

    But like you i don't think it's in our interest. I've heard the remark in management circles "If the regulators insist on third world electric rates they're going to get third world reliability."

    I keep my gas heat for exactly the reason you mention.
    I had a gas stove in Florida and the only hot coffee in the neighborhood after hurricanes Andrew and Irene.
     
  19. Aug 14, 2017 #18

    anorlunda

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    If this ever happened (and as @phinds said, the chance is low) it would probably be government rather than utilities calling the shots. Say DHS orders it as an anti terror mandate. Or insurance underwriters mandate blackout hardening the same way they mandate smoke detectors.
     
  20. Aug 14, 2017 #19

    Averagesupernova

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    I don't see it ever happening in the form of a drill. Insurance underwriters can mandate all they want in the form of requiring additional protection of some kind. This list could go on and on and on. But I never see one private industry (insurance) mandating another private industry (electric utility) to cut offered services.
     
  21. Aug 23, 2017 at 3:26 AM #20
    Interesting topic.

    Including (or: primarily) management, I think. As I see, utility outages mostly can be kept under (limited) control, if there is a kind of preparedness present.
    But what I see quite frequently these days is that 'fresh blood' on the top takes security as given (and start cutting cost), and tends to ignore 'old geezers' who always complaining about redundancy and drills.

    I don't think it should be delivered to the common folk. When they should be prepared it's already bad enough. Management first.
     
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