Power Grid's Weakness Exposed in Nevada Outage

March 17, 2016

By Steve Anderson - Contributing Writer

No one likes going through a power outage. The feelings of helplessness, uncertainty, and disconnect can be tough to manage for just about anyone, and that's before the issue of a lost workday gets started. A recent report from The Spectrum (News - Alert) detailed a power outage in Mesquite, Nevada, that showed not only that power outages are more likely to strike than some might expect, but that the need for backup power systems has never been so great.

Recently, a lightning strike took down power in the region, hitting a pole and causing it to burn. The burning pole eventually fell across the “energized phases”, as noted by Overton Power District's general manager Mendis Cooper, and that eventually took down the power system in turn.

The system had a note of protection built in, in the form of a static line designed to give the system some cover against lightning. Given that the system only had one transmission line, though, any damage to that line meant a loss of power. The static line didn't hold up in this case—Cooper noted that “you just can't find anything that's 100 percent foolproof”—and that led to the power outage. It was hoped that a temporary solution could have kept the power on in the meantime, but the damage was simply too extensive.

It was described as the first outage that had been weather-related in years, so it was easy to see why further measures weren't taken against such a problem. Worse, the measures required to protect the system would have been prohibitively expensive—a second transmission line would require between $100 million and $150 million to install—so the chances of such installation going in are minimal.

This is where backup power systems are particularly important. A system like Minuteman's commonly-offered systems, for example, can provide a critical bridge between power outage and complete shutdown of hardware. This allows work to be backed up appropriately and systems to be more safely shut down. Other power backup systems allow users to carry on even in an outage.

As Cooper noted, it's impossible to find something foolproof. It is, however, more than possible to reduce the potential failure rate to a trivial percentage. Five-nines—99.999 percent—is commonly accepted as the best that can be had in many systems. While it's difficult for the power grid to provide backups for its own operations, it's often just as difficult for homeowners to buy their own backup systems. However, given the state of things, it's starting to look like some breed of backup is necessary to continued operations.

Whether going to a full generator, or a simpler backup solution from Minuteman, it's a safe bet that outages will occur, and often when we least want them to. Having that extra edge of backup power can be deeply valuable, and when it means the difference between work saved and work lost, that's a difference that's worth covering.

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