History, traditions

Power outage to become global disaster in remote future

The Moscow blackout was smaller than the American one. A new blackout looks inevitable, and its scale will be much more terrifying

A global catastrophe of macroregional power grid is inevitable in the 2010s. It can happen to the United States though the Americans are likely to build backup generating capacity systems following the 2003 North America blackout. It can happen to China whose energy sector is somewhat falling behind despite rapid industrial growth. It can happen to Europe where the authorities still can not agree on power plants that should be built to replace the decommissioned facilities. Surely it can happen to Russia.

The authorities were quick to blame Unified Energy System of the Russian Federation and its top management represented by Anatoly Chubais for the May 25th Moscow energy crisis while it was still escalating. Later on the authorities shifted most of the blame onto the management of Mosenergo, the Moscow power grid. The bosses of Mosenergo were accused of being “cynical” and “professionally incompetent.” But hunting down wrongdoers and bringing them to justice will not change the overall situation in the Russian energy sector. Therefore, a new blackout looks inevitable, and its scale will be much more terrifying.

We can recall as an example the outage that took place at the Niagara-Mohawk power grid on August 14th, 2003. The outage resulted in cascading failures of power in 8 U.S. states and emergency shutdowns of more than 100 power plants (including 22 nuclear reactors). Millions of air conditioners being switched on at the same time became the last straw that broke the camel's back.

The Moscow blackout was smaller than the American one. It has its own special features. It was the first case of massive cascading failures which affected the unified controlled power grid. Many specialists believed the system was free from problems related to unbalance and fragmentation of the power network. The “full-scale experiment” showed that the Russian power grid was able to tackle an accident the size of the latest Moscow one within 24 hours. The amount of time used for fixing power problems seems quite acceptable. On the contrary, a scale of the impending catastrophe is unacceptable.

We should bear in mind that both Russian and American blackouts occurred in the conditions of general sufficiency of electricity. Only the transmission grid and its substations were affected. The situation was quite serious but not catastrophic. We will be facing entirely different challenges in the 2010s.

Energy sector is a backbone of both industrial and postindustrial production. Power requirements are planned in line with estimated growth of GDP. Demand for power would commensurate with GDP in an “ideal version.” A decrease in power consumption rate would be taken into account in a “realistic version”, thus demand for power would be lower than GDP. In reality, consumers and utilities are using power at a higher rate than the industry. It is a long-term trend. Therefore, a real demand for power will be growing faster than GDP. The better postindustrial structure a region will have, the greater demand for power will be. As a result, the “world cities” will be turning into a “risk group.”

Energy sector is known for its high amount of investment which do not pay back overnight. A new nuclear power plant will take about 10 years to build and put into operation. Such long-term investment proves to be unprofitable in modern conditions.

In view of the above, business community is ready to regard the energy sector as part of the infrastructure that requires state control.

“Environment-conscious” activists watch closely the energy sector for a number of reasons. The activists believe nuclear power plants are unsafe to operate, they accuse hydroelectric power plant of killing fish stocks and disrupting current structures of rivers. They also accuse thermal power plants of causing air pollution. In short, they oppose everything but generators driven by solar energy or tides.

The world's energy sector (including the Russian one) is rapidly getting physically obsolete under the circumstances. Commutation equipment built back in 1958 was partly responsible for causing the accident at the Chagino substation. By and large, nearly all power grid and transmission equipment in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. is 40-60 years old. The equipment's service life is nearing the end. Tensions are rising because the consumer wants new generating capacities while the producer has no funds to carry out the replacement of old equipment on time. I shall say it again: Russia is just one of the world nations targeted by the problem. Besides, Russia happens to be in a relatively favorable situation following the economic crisis in the 1990s.

In the light of the above developments, we have to envisage a global balance between produced and consumed electric power being disrupted within the next decade. Under the circumstances energy companies will be tempted to change safety regulations and run the power plants way above the design capacity. They could be “playing with fire” like that for several years. Soviet-era engineers with expertise are bound for retirement. Graduates with “bachelor's degrees” who at best are capable of following orders will be taking over. The inevitable is going to happen sooner or later.

Network frequency will begin to drop as the load reaches its peak. However, emergency equipment designed for shutting down substations in case of an overload will be switched off. Under the circumstances any small-scale fault in one of the generating power plants will trigger cascading failures and a system collapse. The lights will go down all over the country save a few out-of-the-way places which are not hooked up to the unified power grid e.g. Kamchatka or Sakhalin. Part of the generating facilities will be put out of service as a result. The network repairs will be completed within a period of time ranging from 72 hours to 1 week.

Do you believe that a global blackout may become a reality?

What should be done to avoid it?

Nikolai Makhutov, Doctor of Technical Sciences, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

“The Russian Academy of Sciences, Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of Science and Education intend to implement an inter-departmental program aiming to introduce a strategic risks theory that will take into account the above risks pertaining to state administration, planning and forecasting. Research conducted in the course of the program shows that there is a wide range of local, regional, national, and global catastrophes. There are data estimating occurrence probability and potential impact of each variety of the catastrophes. The latest power crisis in Moscow shows that power grids are capable of causing large-scale emergencies in the future.”

Marina Katas, Radio Liberty commentator:

“The metropolises are in a “risk group” not only because their power networks are worn out (more than 50% of Russia's power network are worn out) but also due to the threat of a terrorist attack which could bring a major city to the verge of a catastrophe including an environmental one. There is a world trend for the dispersal of electric power sources.

A person who buys a solar battery in Germany will be entitled to a 20-year discount in electricity bills once he officially hooks up the battery to the common power network. Germans are keen to buy such appliances. The batteries are imported from Russia, they are manufactured by Krasnodar-based company “Solnechny Veter.” There is no demand for solar batteries in Russia. The official energy policy concept is centered on nuclear energy production.”

Anton Nosik, chief editor of MosNews.com:

“I just can not help thinking about these man-made catastrophes as regular events, they do not like something that happens by chance. It is hard to explain why they happen so occasionally be it Russia, USA, or Europe. They could be caused by thousands of trifling things that can be barely controlled or predicted. It does not take a Shamil Basayev or mismanagement to bring about arcing, spontaneous ignition, and equipment failure due to overload or wear-and-tear on some unit of the transmission grid. The threat posed by entropy intensifies as the system gets more complex. And entropy tends to grow. I would rather believe that a failure rate in such systems stays at a relatively low level thanks to divine intervention.”

Sergei Pereslegin

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