DOE Emergency Transformer Study Moves to Trump's Queue

DOE Emergency Transformer Study Moves to Trump’s Queue

Congressionally Mandated Study

The Energy Department has held up a congressionally mandated study on how to create an emergency stockpile of power grid transformers, seeking more analysis of worst-case natural disasters and enemy attacks that could cause crippling power blackouts.

Now, the issue lands in a crowded in-basket for President Trump’s designated DOE secretary, former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, assuming the Senate confirms him. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Perry’s nomination, but no date for full Senate consideration has been announced.

Congress directed DOE to make the transformer stockpile study as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in December 2015. No congressmen opposed the measure. This reflects lawmakers’ anxieties about potentially catastrophic blackouts caused by the simultaneous loss of a number of the transformers. These transformers move power across the nation’s synchronized grid systems.

A plan to build specially designed transformers for emergency deployment could mesh with Trump’s pledge to expand infrastructure spending and U.S. manufacturing output and jobs. Trump transition team members were briefed recently about the DOE study, according to a source familiar with the project.

Few U.S. Manufacturers

DOE solicited experts view on whether the U.S. needs a national transformer stockpile and, if so, how they should fund it. The National Association of State Energy Officials commented to DOE that U.S. manufacturers currently supply about 15 percent of the nation’s demand for mid- and large-sized transformers, and for the largest units, the reliance on foreign suppliers is even greater.

A year ago, DOE assigned the technical part of the study to a team led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and with other researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Sandia National Laboratories; the Electric Power Research Institute; and Dominion Virginia Power.

Previously, the DOE has concluded that large power transformers (LPs) — many of them beyond their peak ages — could be damaged by severe weather, natural disasters, geomagnetic pulses from solar storms, physical attacks and, most perilously, by shock waves from the explosion of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere. “The loss of critical LPs could disrupt electricity services over a large area of the country,” DOE has said.

Transformer Transportation Issues

The Oak Ridge study reportedly assessed that the greater challenge was not locating replacement transformers. Moving the bulky, 100-ton-plus units to new locations and bringing them online proves quite challenging. “Having the equipment is one thing, moving it is another,” Scott Aaronson, Edison Electrical Institute executive director for security and business continuity, said at the House hearing. “These things are quite literally hundreds of thousands of pounds and very hard to move.”

MidAmerican Energy in Des Moines, Iowa, took on a demonstration in 2015 of how it could expedite a transformer relocation. With the rail, rigging and permitting requirements, it still took 45 days (Energywire, Nov. 23, 2015).

Now the issue passes over to the Trump administration’s Energy Department. Consequently, it will inherit an uncompleted preparation of an emergency plan that would give the secretary of Energy wide-ranging authority to issue emergency orders to protect and bring back the grid, following declaration of a presidentially declared crisis. Congress called for this plan as well in the FAST Act.

Peter Behr, E&E News reporter

Published: Thursday, February 2, 2017