Friday, May 27, 2011

Deadly tornadoes and tsunamis ask questions of Smart Grid resilience

As the Fukushima disaster unfolded, Barack Obama was quick to order a review into nuclear safety in the United States. His aim was to assure the American public the 104 nuclear reactors in the country could withstand “extreme events” such as tsunamis.

But once the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has completed its review, it may well be harder to convince the American public that the country's nuclear sites which supply 20% of its electricity are safe.

Much of the NRC’s focus so far has understandably been on earthquakes and tsunamis. The NRC is already quite convinced that an earthquake of the magnitude of the Honshu earthquake could not happen in the US because the only subduction zone, that could cause that magnitude of earthquake lies around 50 miles off the coast of northern California, Oregon and Washington.
“So, a continental earthquake and tsunami as large as in Japan could only happen there,” says a NRC factsheet. The closest nuclear plant to this Cascadia subduction zone is the Columbia Generating Station located a reassuring 225 miles from the coast.

But the Pacific Northwest, including major cities such as Seattle and Vancouver are seriously at risk of “megathrust” earthquake from the Cascadia subduction zone. Watch this BBC clip on YouTube if you really want to be scared. And according to this geology blogger, those in Japan have more to fear from a tsunami.

Last week the NRC released a preliminary statement on nuclear safety saying that it was so far mostly satisfied with compliance with standards introduced after the 9/11 attacks.

However, after the tornadoes of terrifying scale seen recently in Alabama and Joplin, the NRC’s focus should also incorporate a far more frequent destructive force in the US: tornadoes.

So far, 132 have been confirmed dead after the tornadoes that struck Joplin. That’s less than the 340 death toll from the 173 tornadoes that struck six southern states within 24 hours. But that’s 132 too many. NOAA said it was the worst tornado outbreak for 40 years. If anyone is still unsure about the destructive force of tornadoes, just watch this video. The woman sobbing in the background says it all.

But as I heard on the radio that morning that some areas of Joplin were still dangerous because the authorities were not able to cut the power to lines in some areas of the city, this got me thinking about two things:

• should we be more worried about the impact of tornadoes than tsunamis when it comes to nuclear power in the US

• would a Smart Grid really be able to deal with this kind of natural disaster?

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the NRC review sparked by the Japanese nuclear disaster already found that some emergency equipment and storage sites at the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in southeastern Kansas might not survive a tornado.

ProPublica recently reported that the NRC routinely waived fire rule regulations at nuclear plants. Fires are dangerous at power plants because they risk knocking out power supply to keep the reactors cool – and safe.

Last month, a plant in Alabama was shut down after it lost power during violent storms and tornadoes.

Loss of life is a tragedy, losing your home is a nightmare. But losing power you might think is a nuisance. But it can have deadly consequences – if you don’t have the radio/internet/TV or phone how do you know when to get out?

Power outages in California for no good reason are all too frequent already, and a 3.8 earthquake recently wiped out electricity for 7,000 in Pacifica, near San Francisco.

If you believe Smart Grids will make our electricity supply more reliable, in a way that’s simply explained in this IBM video, then it will allow the faster shut off of power where it’s unsafe and restoration of power when it is safe to do so. But really how resilient can the Smart Grid be during natural disasters?

There are very many questions that still remain if utilities are going to manage the transition to Smart Grid 2.0. Grid modernisation will essentially turn electricity services into digital services. And Smart Grid resilience is often limited to issues around self-healing microgrids and cybersecurity, not natural disasters.

I am yet to be convinced that an electricity supply provided in a similar manner to my intermittently shaky TV/internet/phone broadband services can be better - for the time being - than the dumb grid and its humming substations, clunky wires and fizzing transformers.

And if that disaster strikes the thousands of homes that supply Distributed Generation when a natural disaster has forced the closure of a gas turbine or nuclear plant, as could happen in southern California, how robust is the Smart Grid then?

San Diego Gas & Electric which has predicted that residential DG solar will increase from 8MW in 2010 to 50MW in 2020. SDG&E is due to supply its Smart Grid road map for 2020 to the California Public Utilities Commission – but will its safety strategy and those of California’s other two investor owned utilities address the impact of natural disasters on Smart Grid. I hope so.

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