Posts filed under ‘Smart Grid’

Grid Reliability and Energy Qualtiy

No sooner did I write a piece in which I questioned the central assumptions that underlie the reliability of the electric grid, than I come face-to-face with an example of what happens when the grid operators are not as conscientious as those to which we have grown accustomed in the US.

If you’re a tennis fan, you’ll know that the Australian Open is played here and, in fact, just concluded last night (spoiler alert — Roger Federer won the men’s title).  If you followed accounts of any of the matches, you’ll know that Melborne, and Eastern Australia in general, has been experiencing a record-challenging heat wave this month.


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This weekend in Australia. Source: 

Things got pretty nasty last night — not only did the Sunday afternoon temperatures bump up against the 100F mark, it didn’t cool down after the sun set. The overnight low was in the mid-80’s.  That extended use of air conditioners put a strain on the local power grids, resulting in significant blackouts throughout the region. Fortunately, our flat in Brunswick wasn’t affected, but a lot of folks had to suffer through a very uncomfortable night without even a fan to offer relief.

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The typical ‘edge’ of the electric grid — on it’s way to your home (source: OSHA)

It’s a little frustrating trying to find any technical details, but given that the outage occurred to customers in three different service areas (three different power companies) and the areas affected didn’t seem to have any geographic continuity, I would be inclined to agree with the early reports that the local distribution system (those wires you see strung down your streets and the transformers on the poles (or in ground-level green boxes) near your homes) were not up to the task.  One of the utility representatives was quoted as saying that a lot of people installed air conditioners but didn’t tell the utility about it.  Not sure if that’s a requirement DownUnder, but that struck me as an odd comment.

There’s a double- or triple-whammy at work here as well. As it gets hotter outside (which drives up the usage of electricity throughout the system), it’s more difficult for the wires and transformers to shed the heat that’s naturally generated in them as they do they’re job.  And just to make matters worse, the resistivity of the conductors (which is why they generate heat in the first place) increases as temperature increases.  It’s not hard to imagine a case where temperature increases to the point of failure, thus causing an local outage for a neighborhood or even a street.  The local utilities  listed hundreds of such local outages, which seems to indicate a rather widespread deficit in the electric infrastructure.

And to be clear, this isn’t a case where there isn’t enough energy to go around (remember California’s rolling blackouts a la Enron?).  The generators were up to the task (and no, you can’t blame intermittent renewable energy on this either), it’s just that the local infrastructure was not designed to handle the load incurred by the number of air conditioners that were running at the time.

I shudder to think what will happen when electric cars start catching on down here!

January 28, 2018 at 5:57 pm Leave a comment

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