More Than Meets the Eye
“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.” – Doug Larson
At the outset of 1998, a series of devastating ice storms blanketed much of lower Quebec and parts of neighboring provinces with a previously unfathomable deluge of freezing rain. While mere millimeters of solid ice can be enough to disrupt road travel and collapse trees, vast swaths of the region experienced several inches of the stuff in five compounding waves. For Hydro-Québec, the province’s power producer, the storms resulted in countless transformer explosions, “400 damaged transmission towers, 24,000 power poles to be replaced, 120,000 km of downed power lines and roughly 1.4 million customers in the dark for almost a month.” The devastation was most acute just east of Montreal inside the triangle formed by the cities of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Granby, and Saint-Hyacinthe—a zone dubbed the Le “Triangle Noir” as the catastrophe dragged on.
Although the brunt of the event was felt in Canada, parts of New England were also severely impacted. In Maine, some 700,000 of the state’s 1.2 million residents lost electricity, necessitating the activation of the Maine National Guard. It took 23 days and the assistance of hundreds of crews from around the country to fully restore power.
As disastrous as the Great Ice Storm of 1998 was for local utilities and the populations they served, one shudders to ponder the consequences should a similar event unfold in a high-population area of the US today. Take the I-95 corridor—sometimes called the Northeast megalopolis—which stretches from Washington, DC to Boston and experiences its fair share of freak winter storms. While its 50 million residents undoubtedly pride themselves on their ability to power through whatever Mother Nature throws at them, no grid could withstand the relentless onslaught of ice like what occurred 25 years ago. To a rough approximation, the area encompassed by the Le “Triangle Noir” alone would cover all five boroughs of the city of New York. Imagine the Big Apple without power for a month in the dead of winter.
Now consider that a month might be wildly optimistic.
For years, a burgeoning supply chain crisis has been plaguing the US power industry, straining grid reliability just as the pursuit of the Green Energy Utopia™ is stretching this hallmark of the developed world to a breaking point. A chronic shortage of transformers can no longer be ignored, and in a letter to federal lawmakers in November, the electric utility sector bluntly sounded the alarm (emphasis added throughout):
“Throughout 2022, the electric sector and representatives from residential and commercial building sectors have been calling attention to the unprecedented supply chain challenges both industries have been facing in procuring equipment used to maintain and grow the electric grid. Specifically, electric utilities continue to have significant problems in procuring basic equipment – particularly distribution transformers – needed to operate the grid, provide reliable electric service, and restore power following severe storms and natural disasters. In housing construction, this is further exacerbating their ability to address the housing affordability crisis facing our nation….
Between 2020 and 2022, average lead times to procure distribution transformers across all segments of the electric industry and voltage classes rose 443 percent. The same orders that previously took two to four months to fill are now taking on average over a year. This is a serious threat to reliability.”
Transformers play an essential role in enabling our modern standard of living. To transport electricity over vast distances at reasonable efficiency, stations must generate power at extremely high voltages. Before such electricity can be safely used in the home, it needs to be stepped down—transformed—to the standard 240 volts around which the US economy is designed. (This is further split at a home’s main circuit breaker panel into two 120-volt halves, called phases.) Distribution transformers—the equipment in short supply that most concerns the utility sector—provide the final voltage transformation in the electric power distribution system, connecting homes to the juice that powers everything.
The letter’s signatories request a $1 billion appropriation towards transformer production via the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate supply. Despite the industry’s urgent call for resources, the Department of Energy is making decisions that will only accelerate the crisis. Let’s dig into the industry’s claims, the administration’s exacerbating policy decisions, and most importantly, the preparatory measures homeowners can take ahead of a major disruption.