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Climate change, not terrorists, is the real threat to the power grid

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Jonathan Thompson | Apr 25, 2013 05:00 AM

Early in the morning on April 16, someone fired shots at a Pacific Gas & Electric substation near San Jose, Calif. A transformer bank was the primary victim, and it ended up losing thousands of gallons of oil. The secondary victim was the electrical grid: The power company urged residents to cut back on their electricity usage while they fixed the problem.

Most of us in the West -- land of shot up signs, appliances and other inert objects -- barely noticed. I only stumbled across a short article about it because I’m researching the electrical grid for a story, and this popped up on my news alert. But then things got more interesting. Someone, perhaps the same saboteur, had also cut telecommunications lines near the substation. Random vandalism had been cranked up to targeted sabotage, just one step away from terrorism.

Peligro!
Warning sign on a high voltage substation near Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona. Transmission lines near Palo Verde were sabotaged back in the 1980s. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

The Intertubes, particularly the ones devoted to conspiracy theories (Warning: links to white supremacist sicko site) and getting ready for the apocalypse, got all clogged up with the news, some going so far as linking it to the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Tex., fertilizer plant explosion. Surely some of them were rushing for their bunkers as they typed.

As for me, I just added it to the growing list of purportedly potential threats to the Western electrical grid -- a massive, messy, tangled and surprisingly reliable “machine” that carries the lifeblood of our society from power plants to our gadgets. If you pay any attention to this sort of thing, you’d be excused for believing that the grid is on the verge of catastrophic collapse at any moment, thanks to:

• North Korea detonating a nuclear device above the U.S., which would create an electromagnetic pulse, which would leave us in the dark for an indefinite amount of time (there is an EMP caucus in Congress, led by Rep. Trent Flake, R-Ariz.; the alleged EMP threat was also a talking point in Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign);
•  solar storms and space weather doing the same;
•  too much intermittent renewable energy and too little steady and predictable coal power destabilizing the grid and causing its collapse;
•  Iranian cyberterrorists hacking into the computers that run the grid and replacing critical software with pirated versions of Space Invaders; or
•  folks knocking down transmission lines in the desert or terrorists shooting at transformers in San Jose.

Now, I don’t mean to belittle any of these concerns. The grid is vulnerable. And any of these things could mess it up. But the renewable energy concern is moot until we get our act together and get a lot more wind and solar into the system, and even then it can be dealt with. As for sabotage, the likelihood of anything beyond a shot up substation causing people to have to wait a day to do the laundry has proven to be slim. Power outages are more likely to be caused by a bird landing in the wrong place than by North Koreans.

In fact, if you really want to worry about something taking down the grid, forget the saboteurs and focus on climate change, which threatens the grid on a number of fronts. Let’s start with air conditioning, one of the major “loads” (electricity demand) on summer afternoons. The warmer it is, the higher people will crank their ACs, meaning a sharper spike in peak demand during the hottest time of the day. That puts more stress on power plants, grid operators and transmission lines, and increases the chances of catastrophic failure. Meanwhile, those same higher temperatures (along with the increased load running through them) cause high voltage transmission lines to sag, which can result in those same lines rubbing up against tree branches.

While sagging lines and caressing tree branches may not sound like much, it was just this phenomenon that caused a massive outage in the West back in 1996. Twice. In early July, a tree branch rubbed against wires in Wyoming, rippling through the grid and taking out power to 2 million. A month later, the same thing happened again. That time 7.5 million lost power.

And then there are those other forms of extreme weather that could result from climate change. Early season snow storms, when the white stuff is wet and heavy enough to take down still-leafy trees that, as they’re falling, rip down power lines, have been known to leave thousands without power. Or the bigger storms, like last autumn’s Sandy, which left some 6.5 million in the dark. Less direct, but just as threatening: Drought. As reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue to shrink, their capacity to generate critical and inexpensive power to the Southwest is diminished. (As you may have noted by now, if we're going to tackle climate change, the grid--and the mix of energy we put into it--will have to play a part. The grid saving the grid, if you will).

In other words, we should be running for our bunkers, but probably not because of terrorism or even random vandalism, which caused just .13 percent of outages in 2011 (as compared to the 15 percent caused directly by weather, excluding lightning, added to the outages that were indirectly exacerbated due to high temperatures). And hopefully they’ll catch the San Jose saboteurs and throw the book at them, for destruction of property. Meanwhile, stay tuned: Much more on the grid is on its way in a May edition of High Country News.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News who's been trying to get into the grid, Matrix-like. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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