Is The Power Grid Ready for Worst-Case Scenarios?

Tom Popik, chairman and co-founder, Foundation for Resilient Societies.

Tom Popik, chairman and co-founder, Foundation for Resilient Societies, on wide-area threats and common mode failures for data centers, at the opening session of Data Center World Fall 2013 in Orlando. He noted that long-term electric outages impact every other critical infrastructure, and a 500-mile distance between your data centers may not be enough distance to fail over in the case of electrical grid outages. (Photo by Colleen Miller)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Is America ready for a sudden loss of electric power over large portions of the country? How likely are these Doomsday scenarios? And how can the data center industry prepare for the worst-case impacts on power grids?

Those questions were explored Sunday in the opening panel of the Data Center World Fall conference, as three experts outlined the threats the U.S. electrical infrastructure may face from seemingly unlikely events – a massive burst of solar weather, terrorist attacks on critical transformers, and radio frequency weapons with the potential to wipe out all the data housed in a server farm.

While these events may seem like the stuff of science fiction, they are more likely than you may suspect, the panel told its audience. For an industry that must account for any and all threats to uptime, these “wide area threats” are tricky because they may seem like a low probability, but carry such a high impact.

A terrorist attack or major geomagnetic storm could knock out power over large area of North America for weeks or event months, warned Tom Popik, founder of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, which works to raise awareness of threats to the power grid.

“Electric power is the glue that holds the infrastructure together,” said Popik, noting that many other critical infrastructure systems need power to function. “A long-term power outage will affect all types of infrastructure.”

Popik and his fellow panelists urged data center managers to engage with public utilities and elected officials  to make them aware of threats to the U.S. power grid and develop plans to address some of these worst-case scenarios.

Custom Transformers = Recovery Bottleneck

Popik said one of the challenges is the interdependency of the North American electrical grid, which makes it difficult to isolate some types of failures. Incidents that affect large portions of the grid are hard to contain and create worrisome recovery scenarios, Popik said.

He said a particular vulnerability is the replacement of some types of equipment, especially Large Power Transformers (LPTs), which are custom-designed, expensive to replace and hard to transport. LPTs weight between 100 and 400 tons, cost millions of dollars and and can take as long as 20 months to manufacture, according the U.S. Energy Department, which addressed the risks of LPT shortages in a 2012 report (PDF).

“Most utilities have few spare transformers,” said Popik, who warned that an incident that damaged multiple large power transformers could cause lengthy problems to the power grid while the units were repaired or replaced.

Popik said a potential shortage of LPTs is an internal weakness of the grid. Other speakers on the panel warned of external threats.

Space Weather and Geomagnetic Storms

The potential for power outages from solar weather has been discussed by the data center industry in recent years. But John Kappenman of Storm Analysis Consultants, said the threat from geomagnetic storms is not well understood.

“We’re looking at impacts that could be measured in trillions of dollars of damages,” warned Kappenman. “The country’s ability to respond to this and recover is very limited. it is arguably one of the worst natural disasters we could have. We have never had a design code that takes this threat into consideration.

“How probable is this? It’s 100 percent probable,” said Kappenman. “They’ve happened here before, and will happen again. They’re not very frequent. We are playing a game of Russian Roulette with this problem.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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