US Power Grid Has Issues with Reliability

Lisa Rhodes, Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Verne Global, which owns and operates a data centre campus in Iceland.

Verne_Lisa_RhodesLISA RHODES
Verne Global

The threat of losing power is among the top stressors for industries such as data centers, hospitals and universities. It’s never a good moment when operators get the dreaded phone call saying power has been lost; unfortunately, it seems as though it’s starting to happen more frequently than ever.

According to CNN, over 140 million customers rely on the three interlinked sectors of the more than 3,200 electric distribution utilities, 10,000+ generating units and tens of thousands of miles of transmissions that make up the United States’ power grid. With an average of nearly 500,000 people affected daily by U.S power outages, it is safe to say that the power grid is reaching its capacity and weakening with the age and declining infrastructure as its main culprits. Experts are worried and it’s with good reason. With the yearly costs of U.S. outages running into the billions, the unease and unpredictability of the infrastructure as well as the lack of physical security, has caused some uncertainty among large-scale power users, such as data centers. As a result, data centers are being force to think outside of the box and become innovative with alternative power sources.

In the past year alone, there have been documented instances, such as with Superstorm Sandy, where the power grid weaknesses were exposed or where officials, such as those in Texas, stepped in to prevent a possible blackout. As a result, several industries, including data centers, were forced to limit or shut down operations, causing massive problems from customers and the public. As one of the largest energy consumers, data centers are among the first to feel the pressure of a waning grid. From lack of connectivity to generator failures and everything in between, the aging power grid is threatening to hurt the data center industry in more ways than one.

Aging Power Infrastructure

The original power grid pathways—similar to a highway system—were built in the early 20th century. Additionally, many utility companies have structures that have been running for 50 to 70 years. Unfortunately, the infrastructure age is causing further problems to the weakening grid. When first built, the lines were adequate; however, as time has progressed there are multiple areas of weakness that have started to show up, causing the uncertainty.

At the current rate the grid is falling, the existing competencies won’t be able to stand up to the future needs without a billion dollar price tag to make the necessary upgrades possible. By pushing systems harder than they’ve been pushed before, the grid can be held accountable for several blackouts in the previous decade- including the infamous 2003 northeastern blackout and the most recent Superstorm Sandy.

According to a report from Mary Meeker, there are over 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide with the number expected to increase 8 percent yearly. In the United States alone, the number of users is over 244 million with a projected 3 percent yearly increase. With the rapid growth in the coming years, data center operators are under increasing pressure to ensure their facilities stay online. Customers demand the ability to access data at any given time and campuses can’t let them down due to power failure. For example, campuses in the Tri-State area went on high alert for preparedness when Sandy hit; however nothing could assist them when their servers, generators and other critical powering devices failed as a result of the utility power loss. Throughout the storm, companies lost the ability to access mission critical documents and popular news websites were down; all of which had data center managers scrambling for solutions. Nearly two months after the storm and Ellis Island is still suffering without power, causing nearly all its historical artifacts to be removed and kept in safe keeping.

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  1. Good article. Thank you for publishing.

  2. Great read, thank you for posting. Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Energy has commissioned the Cybersecurity Capability Maturity Model (C2M2) for the electrical utilities and providers to self-assess their efforts towards securing the electrical grid - utilities have so far resisted any effort to regulate the industry into a more secure posture. ( A real concern for data center providers, and thus, as you note, the focus on emergency sources of data center power until the grid gets more secure and more reliable.

  3. Very interesting comment on a critical issue. Our regional utility, Hydro-Quebec, had to deal with this issue in the past with our tough winters. The massive investments in the Quebec electricity distribution network have paid. We haven’t been touched be the infamous 2003 northeastern blackout, even if our south (NY) and west (Ont) neighbours were without power for up to 24h. The Quebec electricity network is now isolated from our neighbours and redundant. I guess the US will have to make the same upgrade on their electricity network as we did.