How to Kill a Transformer

The main components in our power grid distribution system are transformers.  They step up the generated voltage to a higher level for more efficient transport over very long lines.  Then they step the voltage back down in several stages for final consumption.  These transformers are located at the power plants and thousands of substations.  They are big and right out in the open.  Weather does not bother them, but bullets do.  They are the weak links in our power grid.

Last year someone decided to shoot out the transformers at PG&E’s Metcalf substation in Silicon Valley taking the substation out of service.  Luckily, PG&E was able to reroute the power to prevent a total blackout.  But it took months to get replacement transformers and restore service.

This is a major wake up call to the utilities.   Terrorists, or disgruntled customers, can easily take down a substation with a rifle at long range and get away with it.  The transformers are defenseless as they are not covered or protected in any way.  Furthermore, replacement transformers are hard to come by.

Power transformers are not an off-the-shelf item.  Most are custom made to match the utility’s system.  Each transformer is unique so requires special manufacturing efforts.  It takes months to make small transformers and as many as two years for the big transformers.  And they cost a fortune with small ones going for up to $1 million and as much as $10 million for the big ones.  In addition, transportation is an issue.  How do you ship a monster transformer weighing a couple hundred thousand pounds?  So while replacements are possible, it takes a significant amount of time.  This could cause a black out for months or longer.

On top of all that, there are only about seven transformer manufacturers in the U.S.  And most of these are not typically that busy.  Even so it would be a major problem to get fast service from a U.S. company for custom products.  Not that many of them make the really big high voltage transformers.  However, there are other transformer companies worldwide but service would no doubt be slow, and let’s not mention shipping costs.

Something needs to be done about this, fast.  You know how you feel during even a short few hour blackout.  It is miserable.  Think of all the businesses, hospitals, and government services that depend upon power.  It is a scary thought to think we could go without power for months.  No doubt the utilities are already taking that California event as a wakeup call.  I have not heard what they are doing about it.  And just what can be done anyway?  Special housings?  Bullet proof shielding?  Kevlar vests?  Utilities could keep a spare or two of the smaller cheaper transformers, but it would be too costly to stock a spare of the larger ones.

Most substations are not that secure.  They usually have a chain link fence and maybe even video surveillance but neither of these help when your enemy is a sniper a hundred yards away.  Even armed guards are no help.  It would not take much of a complex or expensive effort to really disrupt electrical service nationwide.  Just ask hurricane and icy winter survivors how bad it is without power for a long time.  So what is the solution?

Since the terrorists now know of this cheap and easy way to hurt us, we had better develop some protection.  In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to get yourself a good generator for back up.

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