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Spare Transformers to Restore Grid After Natural Disaster

Spare Transformers to Restore Grid After Natural Disaster

Spare Transformers to Restore Grid After Natural Disaster 2014-02-12

A portable high-voltage electrical transformer called RecX sits ready to go on its site in Houston, the prototype for a fleet of spare units that could be bundled onto heavy-duty trucks and shipped to locations around the country to help restore electric power quickly after a natural disaster or devastating cyber attack.

Except that the fleet doesn't yet exist. Completed in 2012 by ABB Inc. in St. Louis in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the recovery transformer is still one of a kind.

Superstorm Sandy violently illustrated the threat to the grid from extreme weather, earthquakes and tsunamis. Experts warn that cyberattackers are probing the grid with increasingly sophisticated attacks. A massive, once-in-a-century solar flare could trigger rogue electrical currents that some experts fear would severely threaten vulnerable transformers.

But while government agencies and utility companies are working on plans for stockpiling mobile replacement transformers, there is not a consensus about how they should share the costs, and that is slowing the response, according to people close to the issue.

The unresolved future of the ABB recovery transformer illustrates the dilemma confronting utilities and regulators who must justify investments to protect the grid against elusive threats with unpredictable consequences on top of already costly budgets to replace aging and obsolete grid infrastructure. How much defense is enough?

In a worst-case scenario, parts or all of cities could be without power for months unless something were done quickly. Portable amorphous metal transformer could get power restored to critical services until permanent replacements were in place, said Richard Lordan, recovery transformer project manager at EPRI.

Transformers are essential elements of the electric power network, relied on to step up voltage for efficient long-distance power transfers on high-voltage lines, then step it down to move power into street-level distribution circuits.

The electric power industry has created several programs to stockpile spare transformers. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which oversees grid reliability, has a spare equipment database to help utilities that suffer a loss of multiple transformers locate spares at other utilities.

The industry's Edison Electric Institute Spare Transformer Equipment Program (STEP), created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has a parallel goal. About 50 power transmission operators, representing about 70 percent of the grid, are participating in the program.

EPRI noted in a recent update, however, that the STEP project isn't complete. A new organization would be required to manage the units and parts, handle maintenance and repairs, and service the specially built trailers that transport the units.

Existing spare transformers typically don't have the adaptability that has been built into the RecX models nor are they designed to be shipped over highway in three modules to be reconnected on arrival.

Production costs for a number of the units haven't been set, but the prototype was about $2.5 million for each of the three modules that would be assembled into a three-phase high-voltage transformer, Stiegemeier said. Although most large transformers are built outside the United States, ABB's factory in St. Louis can make them now, he added.