US Power grid

Is the Grid a Few Nodes Away from Unpredictable Failure?

We have a number of recognized transmission and distribution experts serving on our board of "Grid Masters." Several times each month we’ll post what we judge to be the toughest questions that also have high interest to our readers. At least one of our experts will respond. Want to challenge our Grid Masters for a chance to win?

Q: Is it true that according to a mathematical look at spatial networks, the national grid is just a few nodes away from abrupt, unpredictable failure?
Dan Olsen, Shermco Industries, United States

A: No, it is not. The fact that large transmission and distribution grids have many degrees of freedom and are complex multi-objective systems does not mean that they are unstable. In fact, if one looks at major generation sources (large power plants) of the grid, they feed the network in many different locations and provide the multi-point support of the grid during system disturbances to make it stable.

Some major power blackouts of the past years might give an impression that a small , seemingly benign tripping of a relay might cascade to a major outage of a large area of the country. This is a notion parallel to the famous "Can a butterfly in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas?" question. Again, the answer as we know it is no. The cascading effect of the major power outages the grid has experienced in the last 50 years or so was mostly due to the wrong setting or a unlikely coincidence of circumstances, not due to the inherent mathematical instability of the grid itself.
Dr. Mietek Glinkowski, P.E.
Global Head of Technology, Data Centers
and Director of Technology, Power Products


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