The U.S. electric grid could take months to recover from a physical attack because it would be so hard and expensive to replace critical transformers if they were destroyed. Rebecca Smith reports on the News Hub. Photo: AP.
The U.S. electric grid could take months to recover from a physical attack due to the difficulty in replacing one of its most critical components.
The glue that holds the grid together is a network of transformers, the hulking gray boxes of steel and copper that weigh up to 800,000 pounds and make it possible to move power long distances. Transformers were badly damaged in an attack on a California substation last year, and government reports have warned for years that saboteurs could cause sustained damage on the grid by targeting the massive machines.
Only a handful of companies build transformers in the U.S., and it can take weeks or months to ship transformers in from overseas. The manufacturing process itself can last more than a year, in part because a transformer can't be bought off the shelf but rather must be made to measure for its substation.
If attackers damaged enough of the nation's 2,000 biggest transformers at critical locations, they could cause extended blackouts.
Such worries moved beyond the hypothetical recently after The Wall Street Journal reported details about the attack last April on a substation that funnels electricity to Silicon Valley. Unknown gunmen shot up 17 large transformers, knocking PG&E Corp.'s PCG -0.98% Metcalf substation out of service until repairs were made.
A 2012 report by the National Research Council, written for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the "greatest vulnerability in the event of a terrorist physical attack on the power system will likely be securing needed replacements of high-voltage transformers." It said restoring power "could take weeks, months, or even longer."
Transformers are critical because they boost voltages of electricity, so it can travel long distances efficiently. As electricity nears users, transformers reduce voltages so it's suitable for consumption.
Buying and installing a giant transformer is time-consuming and labor intensive. Depending on size, the transformers can cost $1 million to $8 million.
When FirstEnergy Corp. FE -0.84% added a new substation in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, a South Korean factory took about a year to make one of the big transformers, which then traveled by ship for 26 days to Newark, N.J.
There, a crane lifted the 400,000-pound box onto a train to Pennsylvania. At the end of its 7,000-mile journey in 2012, the equipment traveled on a centipede-like contraption with 192 wheels called a crawler, used to keep the heavy transformer from cracking axles or the road.
Total elapsed time from purchase order to delivery: about two years.
Bill Westerman, police chief for Adams Township, Pa., provided some of the 30 escorts it took to move the transformer nine very slow miles to its substation. If utilities had to transport lots of transformers to end a blackout, "we'd be in real trouble," he said. "You'd better go buy yourself a portable generator."
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Just one U.S. factory, in Memphis, Tenn., has the capacity to build the biggest 765,000-volt transformers, according to its owner, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. Seven companies make big transformers in the U.S., but only three or four make the largest sizes that most experts think would be the likely targets of terrorists. Some of the companies declined to comment, citing security concerns.
In 2012, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that Korean companies were dumping large transformers in the U.S. market at unfairly low prices, threatening the last few makers and prompting the federal government to impose duties on those imports.
American factories, which were running at only about 40% of capacity at the time, said business improved last year.
Recently, new U.S. factories have started up, partly to build replacements for aging equipment.
ABB Inc. ABBN.VX -2.18% of Zurich, Switzerland, would mobilize its three factories in North America and 10 overseas in the event of an emergency, said Deidre E. Cusack, senior vice president in Raleigh, N.C. Even so, she said, it could take several months to build and deliver units.
The industry isn't organized for speed, said Ravi Rahangdale, who owns Pennsylvania Transformer Technologies Inc. in Pittsburgh. Units often last 40 or 50 years, he said, giving utilities plenty of time to plan for replacements.
"We never have had the situation where someone said, 'we need one tomorrow,'" Mr. Rahangdale said, adding that even if his company added another shift, it only could build 20 units in six months.
Jiangsu Huapeng Co. Ltd. has one of the biggest factories in the world in Jiangsu Province, China. Jim Cai, the company's U.S. representative, said his company would try to fill a rush order, but he figured the shortest time it could take is three or four months.
Efforts to speed delivery run into practical problems. When the Phoenix utility known as the Salt River Project needed to get a transformer to Arizona from Texas, it ended up renting the world's largest cargo plane, a Russian Antonov-225, built to carry the Soviet space shuttle.
Utilities say they are trying to address the transformer problem. About 50 electric companies participate in a program to share spares that's run by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., another power industry group, keeps a database of spares. Neither will say how many are in inventory. Since transformers are custom-designed, it's unclear how helpful the programs would be.
And there are limits to how much equipment utilities are willing to share. When it comes to transformers, "you're not going to give up one that's critical to you," said Rick O'Callaghan, director of transmission and substation engineering for FirstEnergy in Akron, Ohio.
The utility industry is trying to come up with a universal transformer—or something close to it—but the effort is still in an early stage. It is also reconsidering the common practice of storing spares alongside working transformers, exposing both to attacks.
Some suppliers say that the best solution is the most obvious: protect the transformers. Steve Newman, vice president of Delta Star Inc., of Lynchburg, Va., said the problem is, "we've always known that with a couple dollar bullets, you can take out a transformer worth millions of dollars."