Gripped as we are at the time of this writing by a historic heatwave, it’s hard for those of us in the western United States to picture a time when cold and ice reigned across the land. But really, it was only about four months back that another bit of freakish weather was visited across most of the country, including places ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. The now-fabled “February Freeze” left millions, mostly in Texas, scrabbling about in the dark and cold as a series of cascading engineering failures took apart their electrical grid, piece by piece, county by county.
The event has been much discussed and dissected, as an event with such far-reaching impact should be. Like much discussion these days, precious little of it is either informed or civil, and that’s not good news for those seeking to understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, or at least to mitigate the effects somewhat. Part of that is understandable, given the life-disrupting and often life-threatening situations the disaster forced people to suddenly face. It’s also difficult for people to discuss an event so widespread in its scope and impact — there’s just too much for anyone to wrap their head around.
To make the present discussion a little easier, we’ll be focusing on one aspect of the February grid crash that’s often bandied about but rarely explained: that the Texas grid was mere minutes away from collapsing completely, and that it would have taken weeks or months to restore had it been able to slip away. Is that really possible? Can the power grid just “go away” completely and suddenly? The answer, sadly, is yes, but thankfully a lot of thought has been put into not only preventing it from happening but also how to restart everything if it does happen, by performing what’s known as a “Black Start.”
Once upon a time, the consensus was that renewable energy was too expensive and in too sparse supply to be a viable power source to run our proud, electrified societies on. Since then, prices of solar panels have tanked, becoming more efficient along the way, and homeowners have been installing them on their rooftops in droves.
Where once it was thought we’d never have enough solar energy, in some cities, it’s becoming all too much. In South Australia, where solar output can be huge on a sunny day, electricity authorities are facing problems with grid stability, and are taking measures to limit solar output to the grid.
Isn’t More Usually Better?
The problem faced by South Australian utilities is one of how to properly control an electrical grid with many thousands of distributed power sources. Typically, in conventional modern power grids, voltage and frequency is controlled within set limits by carefully matching the supply from major power plants with the demand from users. Fast-response plants can be brought online to meet shortfalls, and switched off when demand drops, and everything hums along nicely.
Renewable energy has long been touted as a major requirement in the fight to stave off the world’s growing climate emergency. Governments have been slow to act, but prices continue to come down and the case for renewables grows stronger by the day.
However, renewables have always struggled around the issue of availability. Solar power only works when the sun is shining, and wind generators only when the wind is blowing. The obvious solution is to create some kind of large, grid-connected battery to store excess energy in off-peak periods, and use it to prop up the grid when renewable outputs are low. These days, that’s actually a viable idea, as South Australia proved in 2017.
As the global climate emergency continues to loom over human civilization, feverish work is underway around the world to find technical and political solutions to the problem. Much has been gained in recent years, but as global emissions continue to increase, there remains much left to do to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Renewable energy has led the charge, allowing humanity to continue to enjoy the wonders of electricity with a reduced environmental impact. The future looks promising, with renewable sources becoming cheaper than traditional fossil fuel energy plants in many cases, both in the USand abroad. At the same time, the rise of renewable technologies has brought new and varied challenges to the fore, which must be dealt with in kind. Take wind energy, for instance. Continue reading “What Will We Do With The Turbine Blades?”→
Someone who decides to build a house faces a daunting task. It’s hard enough to act as the general contractor for someone else, but when you decide to build your own house, as my parents did in the early 1970s, it’s even tougher. There are a million decisions to make in an information-poor and rapidly changing environment, and one wrong step can literally cast in stone something you’ll have to live with forever. Add in the shoestring budget that my folks had to work with, and it’s a wonder they were able to succeed as well as they did.
It was a close call in a few spots, though. I can recall my dad agonizing over the wiring for the house. It would have been far cheaper to go with aluminum wiring, with the price of copper wire having recently skyrocketed. He bit the bullet and had the electrician install copper instead, which ended up being a wise choice, as houses that had succumbed to the siren call of cheaper wiring would start burning down all over the United States soon thereafter.
What happened in the late 60s and early 70s in the residential and commercial electrical trades was an expensive and in some cases tragic lesson in failure engineering. Let’s take a look at how it all happened.
A team in Xiangyang, China is using a flame-throwing drone to clear debris from high voltage power lines. These lines are made of metal of course, and are impervious to the high heat of the flames. Any type debris that gets on the lines will be charred to a cinder in just a few seconds. This is all is quite a bit safer than sending a human with some type stick up there near the high voltage lines.
Over the years here at Hackaday, we’ve seen people attach some strange things to drones. We can all recall the drone with a real firing pistol. And how about that drone with the huge flamethrower trying to cook a turkey. And let’s not forget the drone that fires bottle rockets. [Caleb Kraft] did a write-up about hacking the AR drone years ago and mentioned that someone put an Estes-rocket on a drone. While all of these are incredibly dangerous, ill-advised and for the most part useless, this new power line clearing drone may be the first exception we’ve seen.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen someone put on a drone?
The electrical grid transmits power over wires to our houses, and our Bryan Cockfield has covered it very well in his Electrical Grid Demystified series, but what part does the earth ground play? It’s commonly known to be used for safety, but did you know that in some cases it’s also used for power transmission?
Typical House Grounding System
A pretty typical diagram for the grounding system for a house is shown here, along with a few of the current carrying conductors commonly called live and neutral. On the far left is the transformer outside the house and on the far right is an appliance that’s plugged in. In between them is a breaker panel and a wall socket of the style found in North America. The green dashed line shows the normal path for current to flow.
Notice the grounding electrodes for making an electrical connection with the earth ground. To use the US National Electrical Code (NEC) as an example, article 250.52 lists eight types of grounding electrodes. One very good type is an electrode encased in concrete since concrete continues to draw moisture from the ground and makes good physical contact due to its weight. Another is a grounding rod or pipe at least eight feet long and inserted deep enough into the ground. By deep enough, we mean to include factors such as the fact that the frost line doesn’t count as a good ground since it has a high resistance. You have to be careful of using metal water pipes that seemingly go into the ground, as sections of these are often replaced with non-metallic pipes during regular maintenance.
Notice also in the diagram that there are places where the various metal cases are connected to the grounding system. This is called bonding.
Now, how does all this system grounding help us? Let’s start with handling a fault.