Spare transformers to restore the grid after disaster still await a green light

A portable high-voltage transformer called RecX sits ready to go on its site in Houston, the prototype for a fleet of spare units that could be bundled onto heavy-duty trucks and shipped to locations around the country to help restore electric power quickly after a natural disaster or devastating cyberattack.

Except that the fleet doesn't yet exist. Completed in 2012 by ABB Inc. in St. Louis in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the recovery transformer is still one of a kind.

Superstorm Sandy violently illustrated the threat to the grid from extreme weather, earthquakes and tsunamis. Experts warn that cyberattackers are probing the grid with increasingly sophisticated attacks. A massive, once-in-a-century solar flare could trigger rogue electrical currents that some experts fear would severely threaten vulnerable transformers.

But while government agencies and utility companies are working on plans for stockpiling mobile replacement transformers, there is not a consensus about how they should share the costs, and that is slowing the response, according to people close to the issue.

The unresolved future of the ABB recovery transformer illustrates the dilemma confronting utilities and regulators who must justify investments to protect the grid against elusive threats with unpredictable consequences on top of already costly budgets to replace aging and obsolete grid infrastructure. How much defense is enough?


"We will need to understand what it takes to restore the functionality of the grid against very different hazards than what we're familiar with," said Paul Stockton, managing director of Sonecon LLC and former assistant secretary of homeland defense for the Defense Department.

"How can utility commissioners partner with utilities to build a system of metrics suitable for hazards more catastrophic than Sandy and develop a shared perspective on the kinds of investments needed to restore power as quickly and effectively as possible when catastrophes strike?" Stockton said in an interview.

"State utility commissioners need an evaluative framework to figure out whether the proposed investments actually produce resilience. It's tough, but it's a prerequisite for progress. Until there is a basis for cost recovery by industry, until industry and the commissioners who regulate them can achieve consensus on what are the standards to judge resilience proposals, until then, providing for cost recovery is going to be very, very difficult," Stockton added.

In a worst-case scenario, parts or all of cities could be without power for months unless something were done quickly. Portable transformers could get power restored to critical services until permanent replacements were in place, said Richard Lordan, recovery transformer project manager at EPRI. "When you start getting into the man-made actors, physical attacks, cyberattacks, how do you assign a probability to those events, to something that has never happened?" Lordan asked.

Stockton feels a clock is ticking.

"There is a risk that when -- not if -- a cyberattack does effectively disrupt a power grid, we will suffer strategic surprises," he said. It happened with Sandy when, he said, Defense Department officials were surprised by the extent of the damage to energy facilities.

"I believe that we're likely to suffer an equivalent strategic surprise in a cyberattack -- that we'll discover interdependencies in infrastructure, we'll discover urgent requests for assistance from industry and state and local governments that we haven't yet anticipated," Stockton said.

"As the severity of the threat continues to grow, and that threat is better and better recognized, there will be opportunities for building consensus. And I hope it won't take the equivalent of a Hurricane Sandy or worse to kick-start that consensus building," he added.

Cost, maintenance questions

Transformers are essential elements of the electric power network, relied on to step up voltage for efficient long-distance power transfers on high-voltage lines, then step it down to move power into street-level distribution circuits.

The electric power industry has created several programs to stockpile spare transformers. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which oversees grid reliability, has a spare equipment database to help utilities that suffer a loss of multiple transformers locate spares at other utilities.

The industry's Edison Electric Institute Spare Transformer Equipment Program (STEP), created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has a parallel goal. About 50 power transmission operators, representing about 70 percent of the grid, are participating in the program.

EPRI noted in a recent update, however, that the STEP project isn't complete. A new organization would be required to manage the units and parts, handle maintenance and repairs, and service the specially built trailers that transport the units. "Realizing this vision would require cost and feasibility studies, as well as research that identifies the most vulnerable components," EPRI said.

Existing spare transformers typically don't have the adaptability that has been built into the RecX models nor are they designed to be shipped over highway in three modules to be reconnected on arrival.

"Government would like to take it a step further," said Craig Stiegemeier, ABB's business development and technology director. But the questions remain, he said: "Should utilities be buying spare transformers or should government come up with a program?"

Production costs for a number of the units haven't been set, but the prototype was about $2.5 million for each of the three modules that would be assembled into a three-phase high-voltage transformer, Stiegemeier said. Although most large transformers are built outside the United States, ABB's factory in St. Louis can make them now, he added.

The RecX transformer was installed at Houston's CenterPoint Energy in March 2012 for trials. "It's performing as designed," EPRI's Lordan said. "Everything is beautiful."

Knowns and unknowns

Solar storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, the derecho, fires -- "we know about them," Lordan said. "But we still have to figure out how to deal with them."

"Then there are the emerging high-impact, low-frequency events that we don't know so much about," he added, with solar storms and cyber and physical attacks on the grid heading that list.

"Each of these threats tends to come up in a vacuum. You hear from a stakeholder who is passionate about one of these things. They have their concerns that are warranted, and their suite of countermeasures. The utility industry says, 'We need to learn more about the probabilities.'"

His organization is working with the Department of Homeland Security and the Energy Department on a model to assess the probability and severity of these hazards. "Once you have the risk, and determine the vulnerability of the system, you can't start thinking about countermeasures.

"How many recovery transformers would make sense? Where should they be located? Who decides who gets them in an emergency? Who owns them? Who maintains them? Who blows the whistle and says, 'This is it'?" Lordan asked.

"We need a coordinated strategy."

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