Norm Cimon

My Voice

About the author

Norm Cimon has lived in La Grande for more than 30 years. He is a systems analyst who has worked for the EPA, the U.S. Forest Service and for private industry.

My Voice columns reflect the views of the author only. My Voice columns should be 500-700 words or as space allows. Submissions should include a portrait-type photograph of the author. Authors also should include their full name, age, occupation and relevant organizational memberships. We edit submissions for brevity, grammar, taste and legal reasons. We do not fact check. We reject those published elsewhere. Send columns to La Grande Observer, 1406 5th St., La Grande, Ore., 97850, fax them to 541-963-7804 or email them to news@lagrandeobserver.com .

I respect Bill DeLashmutt’s background, but he’s got it backward about grid reliability and the Boardman to Hemingway (B2H) electric transmission line project. I used to teach those OSU engineers their mathematics when I was in graduate school at the university. Mr. Delashmutt is behind the curve on this.

The grid is more reliable and more secure with distributed generation. It is less secure and sure to have more unpredictable failures with ever-increasing amounts of long-distance transport over high-voltage lines. That’s because feedback can amplify small fluctuations into grid collapse, just like those rock concerts that blew eardrums out. Adding yet another high-voltage power line to the existing grid will make it even less stable. The industry knows this but will not admit it because it will kill their business model and their profits.

Research conducted since the 1980s has confirmed this. IEEE, the association for professional engineers, has been making this point since 2004. The power grid has feedback built in. It can and will amplify minor fluctuations into major grid failures. When and how that happens is unknowable.

Real data shows that the frequency of blackouts versus their size is much higher than expected, so there’s no top end to the likelihood of a massive failure. Rather than falling off sharply beyond a certain size, the frequency of large blackouts falls off much more slowly so the probability of regional blackouts is always there.

It gets worse. Here’s what has been learned from that research:

“Increasing the rating of individual power lines often increases the frequency of large cascading failures, much as the suppression of individual forest fires eventually leads to major conflagrations.”

The reality about such systems is that they are hair-trigger. Any changes in system conditions, however slight, make specific power outages unpredictable.

Resistance to the idea that the power grid is chaotic has fallen away as blackouts keep happening and failures keep piling up:

“…such as Western Europe in 2006, Brazil in 2009, and twice in India [in 2012].…[Giving] evidence to the experts that cascading failures are a dangerous facet of modern power grids [and] all but impossible to predict or prevent. ‘Large blackouts are likely to recur at regular intervals,’ says Ian Dobson, a cascading failures expert and electrical and computer engineering professor at Iowa State University.”

The message is clear. Large blackouts are not a bug that can be swatted away by building more high-voltage lines, but a “feature” of large power grids.

The USDOE, which hosts the top renewable energy lab in the world, has this to say:

“Microgrids, which are localized grids that are normally connected to the more traditional electric grid but can disconnect to operate autonomously, are another way in which the reliability and resiliency of the grid can be improved. Microgrids use advanced smart grid technologies and the integration of distributed energy resources such as backup generators, solar panels and storage. Because they can operate independently of the grid during outages, microgrids are typically used to provide reliable power during extreme weather events.”

Research and real life experience argue strongly for turning away from ever-larger grid components to a more modular grid. Microgrids will bring greatly improved resilience to the services — hospitals, police stations, fire stations, assembly points, food distribution centers and more — that are essential both in emergency and non-emergency situations.

The development of a modular grid promises greater resilience and the ability to withstand the loss of external power. Large power grids bring only the guarantee of large power failures.

Strip away the technical jargon and all of this is easy to understand. The writing is on the wall. It’s time to read it clearly.

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