Lightning Does Strike In the Same Place Twice

May 30, 2013
Switchgear has come a long way in the 40 years I have been designing and building substations.

Being both an engineer and a writer, I know firsthand that delivering quality is all about being excited about what you do and caring about the impact your work will have. Any acknowledgement or recognition comes in as a pale second (not that I would turn down accolades).

So when my friend Emily Saarela, T&D World’s senior managing editor, called me several months ago and told me that — for the second year in a row — one of my supplements, “Renewables Changing the Grid,” had been selected as a finalist for the Jesse H. Heal Awards, I was energized. What are the odds of an engineer writing two back-to-back supplements and both making the Neal finals? About the same odds as having lightning hit the same spot twice, a friend told me.

The award did get me to New York City with my buddy Rick Bush, T&D World’s editorial director. Any time we can meet up is great, and New York City makes it even better. It gave us a chance to discuss ideas, talk about trends and spend some time together.

As we visited, we started talking about last year’s HVDC supplement (April 2012), which got me thinking about some of the cool technologies we are highlighting in this switchgear supplement and the FACTS supplement we are planning for next year. I told Rick about my firsthand glimpse of ABB’s hybrid HVDC circuit breaker on my trip to Ludvika, Sweden, for the HVDC supplement. We also talked about my visit to ABB’s computer simulation center in Vesteras, Sweden, where they are putting together a super-computer and circuit models to simulate that breaker on an HVDC grid and to see what effects opening and closing these breakers have on the stability and power flow.

Rick and I also talked about advancements in switchgear technology for hardening the grid to storm damage and outages, which seemed only natural given we were in New York City. Rick and I had collaborated on writing a special edition about Superstorm Sandy. Sandy hit this area pretty hard last October. Almost five months later, the TV was still full of stories about dealing with the aftermath, and our friends in the utilities serving the area are still rebuilding.

Since we were in New York City, we called some friends at ConEd. They invited us to drop by for a visit and talk about what was happening. The next morning, we went to ConEd’s engineering offices in Lower Manhattan, which was an area hit pretty hard by the storm and flooding. The conversation covered everything from the storm, restoration and hardening the system to preventing future outages. Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done and be cost-effective.

A good example is ConEd’s 13th Street substation. This substation is a major player in supplying Lower Manhattan’s electricity. ConEd had built a 12-ft (3.6-m)-high wall around the station to protect it from storm surges, but Superstorm Sandy had a tidal surge almost 14 ft (4.2 m) high. The previous tidal surge record was just a little more than 8 ft (2.4 m). The YouTube video of the station’s fireball was one of the most watched videos of the storm.

ConEd is now looking at some additional steps that may be used in specific locations such as submersible switchgear and raising the switchgear above ground level if possible. As we discussed the possibilities, I started remembering a personal visit from Mother Nature to a substation I had designed as a young engineer.

I had installed a brand-new, bright and shiny Federal Pacific 15-kV metal-clad switchgear one summer early in my career. A few weeks after commissioning the substation, the switchgear was pretty much destroyed. I got a phone call to get out to the station ASAP. This was the type of phone call no wet-behind-the-ears engineer wants to receive. The chief of maintenance was not happy and, as a result, neither was the vice president of engineering. Heck, I didn’t know the vice president even had my phone number.

Well, it seems my shiny new switchgear was no longer shiny. In fact, it would be stretching it to say it was a switchgear at all, considering the smoke damage, melted bus work, burned-up control cabling and other damage. They told me there had been a thunderstorm in the area, and the substation suffered a major outage. Somehow, one of the circuit breakers blew up and started a fire inside the cabinet. The implication was, “What had I done?” As a result, I was given an amazing education in switchgear technology.

The switchgear was one of those magnetic air-chute circuit breaker designs so popular back in the day. There was nothing wrong with the technology, but cosmic karma had poked it with its fickle finger of fate. After much study and several simulations, it turned out that two lightning strikes had destroyed the breaker. In fact, the breaker was in the process of clearing the first strike when the second one hit, and it was destroyed.

The breaker never had a chance — so much for the “lighting-never-strikes-twice-in-the-same-spot” myth — but it gave me an appreciation of the grid’s building blocks, and that still excites me today.

Switchgear has come a long way in the 40 years I have been designing and building substations. I can’t wait to see how the grid will be defined as we apply advanced switchgear technologies.

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