Safeguarding the Grid from a Complete Collapse

Human beings have discovered some really valuable facets about themselves over the years, and yet none can be deemed as valuable as our ability to grow on a consistent basis. We say this because the stated facet has already fetched the world some huge milestones, with technology emerging as quite a major member of the group. The reason why we hold technology in such a high regard is, by and large, predicated upon its skill-set, which guided us towards a reality that nobody could have ever imagined otherwise. Nevertheless, if we look beyond the surface for one hot second, it will become abundantly clear how the whole runner was also very much inspired from the way we applied those skills across a real world environment. The latter component, in fact, did a lot to give the creation a spectrum-wide presence, and as a result, initiated a full-blown tech revolution. Of course, the next thing this revolution did was to scale up the human experience through some outright unique avenues, but even after achieving a feat so notable, technology will somehow continue to bring forth the right goods. The same has turned more and more evident in recent times, and assuming one new discovery ends up with the desired impact, it will only put that trend on a higher pedestal moving forward.

The researching team at Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has successfully concluded a study where the agenda was to examine how an EMP (high-altitude electromagnetic pulse) enters a power plant and what damage it can inflict on equipment. Before we could understand the significance attached to this development, though, we’ll have to understand the concept of EMP. You see, while a nuclear weapon detonated hundreds of miles in the air does not directly harm people on the ground, the resulting intense EMP energy wave can “couple” to power, electronic, and communications systems. Such a mechanism then produces large spikes in voltage or current, spikes that destroy equipment within a certain radius, unless of course it is specially protected. As if this wasn’t dangerous enough, after the initial explosion, the EMP rapidly continues through two more pulse stages, something which can further impact power transformers, instruments, and power system operations across the board.


“Some estimates indicate that if a nuclear weapon was detonated in the atmosphere above middle America, it could cause widespread, extended blackouts and possibly partial collapse of the grid,” said DaHan Liao, the lead ORNL researcher. “So this is really important because it could be a catastrophic, widespread event.”

But given many researchers have already conducted a similar study in the past, how is this one any different? The difference is the fact that almost all those previous studies have based their approach on rudimentary computer models that cannot be deemed accurate with complete confidence. The new research, on the other hand, solved the validation conundrum through ambient readings of the low-level electromagnetic activity generated by cellular, broadcast radio, and television transmitters. The process involved sampling the signal strength inside and outside buildings, as well as near key equipment at a hydroelectric plant and on the ORNL campus. Then they actually leveraged a set of computer models to amplify these measurements and simulate how a surge caused by an EMP would affect equipment found at many types of power plants, including those fueled by coal, gas and nuclear power. Next up, Yilu Liu, the UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Power Grids, led a team of students to install low-level signals into working power electronics, such as inverters, programmable logic controllers, and phasor measurement units. They did so because modern power system incorporates an increasing number of solar arrays, wind turbines, and batteries that connect to the grid through inverters, which in turn, are power electronic components vulnerable to an EMP. Anyway, they would later record the results to better understand how these components channel electromagnetic energy and what level of exposure will damage low-voltage electronics.

“Technology has advanced over the last few decades such that we can even create an EMP without requiring a nuclear weapon. There are strong, efficient microwave transmitters that are portable and could be used by terrorists or bad actors,” said Liao. “Also, today’s electronic equipment is more vulnerable than equipment from the 1960s, because we’re more reliant on semiconductors, and lots of equipment operates at lower voltages. Such small components have less ability to absorb energy surges from EMPs.”

Another key part of this whole effort was a newly-developed simulation tool. The stated tool played a big part when it came down to allowing utilities to analyze their specific configurations and equipment, and therefore, effectively predict EMP impacts. Not just that, the simulation tool also helped generate recommendations for enhancing surge protection equipment, and scaling up grounding and shielding methods. The latter use case is contextualized once you consider grounding methods implemented to handle lightning strikes are largely incapable against EMP, which delivers a faster charge with higher intensity.

“There are more vulnerabilities than we expected, especially in exposed systems outside the facility,” said Liao. “There are cascading consequences that can happen when something small breaks down and prevents something larger from operating.”

Holistically speaking, the researchers plan was to use their findings to cut back on EMP risks posed at power-generating equipment. However, with inherent vulnerabilities presented by basic or low-voltage components now also on the surface, it remains to be seen whether the effort is expanded for future studies. If existing low-voltage components are accommodated, they are likely to include cables, wires, and every other element which can act as both antenna for picking up electromagnetic energy, and as conduit for delivering energy to attached hardware, thus boasting the means to rapidly overload the voltage capacity of simple motors and microelectronics.

The ORNL researching team worked in collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric eNergy Transmission Networks (CURENT), to facilitate the study.

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