Power failure

In more ways than one. On Saturday night, between 2230 and 2300 local time, a huge chunk of the European power grid fell over, affecting supply from northwest Germany, through Holland and Belgium, and mostly in France. Further afield, small areas of Austria and Italy lost power, and the Spain-Morocco interconnection was shut off to prevent the trouble spreading. Fortunately, power was restored speedily.

At the heart of the whole thing, meet the cruise liner Norwegian Pearl. This floating gin palace was recently completed by the Meyer Werft shipyard on the river Ems in northwestern Germany. Now, Meyer’s shipyard is a long way up the river. To get a ship the size of the Pearl out, you have to wait for a spring tide. But there’s a catch – just downstream of the yard, a 400 kilovolt transmission line belonging to the German utility company E.ON crosses the river. And the more water there is in the river, the less clearance there is under the wires. So, on Saturday night, when the weather and the tide were perfect for Captain Thomas Teitge to take the ship down the river, E.ON switched the wires off. And then the troubles began.

Update: She sailed today without further trouble.

On the same evening, another big transmission line was offline for maintenance. And a thin wind was cutting down the North Sea from the Arctic, bringing central Europe the first snow of the winter – driving up demand for power with one hand, but also setting the German wind power industry’s turbines spinning merrily on the sandbanks of Schleswig-Holstein. Suddenly, there was heavy demand for power to the South and ample supply to the North, but only one wire between the two. It overloaded and the automatic circuit breakers tripped.

As they did on all the other lines it was connected to, in a classic cascade failure in a large networked system. The next utility down the line, RWE in the Ruhr, cranked up 1,000 megawatts of coal and gas-fired power as the grid wilted, but it was all too late and the mess had landed. Patchy blackouts shot across western Europe. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Pearl was waiting at the dock gate – the E.ON reliability controller having acted on the principle of “turn it off and turn it back on again” and switched the line over the Ems back on. For reasons that ought to be clear, they weren’t willing to do any more experiments that evening.

That just left an extensive exercise in blamestorming. The Nordrhein-Westfalen and Niedersachsen state governments went to bat for their own clientele – NRW and RWE blaming the wind industry and Niedersachsen blaming RWE for not taking enough gas capacity off line to balance increased wind output, while everyone blamed that pesky ship. Nuclear lobbyists naturally announced that with more nuclear power it wouldn’t have happened – although the biggest failures were in France, on the territory of the world’s most powerful electricity system, 90 per cent nuclear and a net exporter of power. Whoever’s fault it was, it wasn’t (as the Guardian claimed) due to a lack of electricity – rather, a cockup in managing a large networked system.

Fortunately, E.ON has done a public service by carrying the can. Now, perhaps, we can actually start thinking about the solutions. It’s hard not to agree with Romano Prodi that – as a European grid exists – there ought to be European management of it. Some coordination exists, through UCPTE for Germany, the Benelux countries and France, and NORDEL for Scandinavia (the UK will soon be interconnected with NORDEL as it is with France), but it’s frankly surprising that an explicitly technocratic project like the EU, founded on the principle of neo-functional spillover, hasn’t integrated something as technocratic, international and important as its power grid yet.

I forgot. There are still crucial items on the agenda like “The Word Solidarity Isn’t In the European Constitution – The Brits Want to Outlaw Being Nice” and “I’m Sure I Saw a Federal Express Van outside – It’s All A German Plot”.

11 thoughts on “Power failure

  1. I don’t understand this.

    I would have thought that the electrical distribution system is easily enough modelled as a graph, and that it’s easy enough to figure out critical flows through the system, and how those flows change as links are taken out. So doesn’t someone, before they switch off critical links, run the appropriate computer program and note “oops, the single remaining link between North and South Germany just turned red”?

    So is the issue that
    * the organizations involved really are so incompetent that they don’t have even this basic level of modelling?
    * they have this level of modelling but run the models based on yesterday’s power profile, not on some sort of reasonable worst-expected case profile?
    * there is some important detail that has been missed by this post that is not susceptible to modelling?

  2. Just to complete things. There´s one other accusation mentioned too in Germany.

    The privatized German utility companies haven´t allegedly invested enough in power grid improvement in the last few years. And since “liberalization” they have reduced their surplus power generation ability. Meaning they have less idle (emergency) power stations available since these cost money.

  3. @Maynard: Experience shows that big grids consistently surprise people. The 2003 Northeast US blackout happened because large volumes of electricity passing from north to south in the Lake Erie area have to travel around the lake, on what is known as the Lake Erie loop. On the night, a seriously huge loop current developed there, causing lines to overheat, expand, droop and touch trees. Then things tend to cascade very quickly.

    Part of the problem is that the US electricity trading system assumes that power is traded discretely between individual buyers and sellers, as if there was a wire linking each source and sink independently, or more precisely that the network is homogenous. It’s not, of course, homogenous, and neither are the links independent – it’s better thought of as a single gigantic machine.

  4. @Maynard:

    Yes, there is modeling software that will tell you things like, if you cut this line, it will cause a chain reaction of voltage collapse elsewhere, and if you want to avoid that, you need to change things here, here, and here. In fact, my wife’s company sells it.

  5. I think the problem wasn’t in the software but in the modeling parameters. Apparently, in the switch-off-model they assumed a lower windcraft energy injection into the network than actually occured – so much for the power of alternative energy sources ;).

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  7. Maynard wrote:

    “So doesn’t someone, before they switch off critical links, run the appropriate computer program and note “oops, the single remaining link between North and South Germany just turned red”?”

    Actually I think Alex exaggerated a bit. 🙂
    If you look here:
    you´ll see the German high-voltage power grid (red-380kV and green-220 kV, I believe). The river Ems is close to the border with the Netherlands. Even if that one transmission line is switched off (and another one switched off for maintenance), there are still several lines connecting Northern and Southern Germany if you include Eastern Germany. Plus the lines connecting Germany to the European power grid.

    By the way, according to the Meyer shipyard, that particular power line got switched off at least twice a year in the past few years too. Because of big ships traveling downriver.

    And the daily newspaper “Die Welt” reported that wind power was up around 15% above average. Which normally shouldn´t be a problem.

    So if I look at the facts:
    – two transmission lines switched off
    – cold weather (probably mentioned in weather forecasts) surely leading to higher consumption

    it looks more like someone didn´t plan ahead.
    Or bad coordination between the utility companies in Germany. If the utility companies in Central and Southern Germany had planned ahead and bought some electricity from other European countries for the switch-off period, maybe nothing would have happened.

    That of course would have cost money. 🙂
    And – as I mentioned in my earlier post – since the German utility companies were privatized, they have reduced their (“overcapacity”) emergency power generation. Since keeping powers stations on stand-by costs money too. And reducing the profit.

    So half of the blame belongs to the utility companies in my opinion. Looks like they simply hoped nothing would happen.

    The other half of the blame probably belongs to German laws and regulations. As far as I know new North-South transmission lines are planned. But it takes too long from submitting plans to actually get permission to build.

    Personally I believe that right now the utility companies will get most of the blame. Electricity prices are – according to newspaper reports – still pretty high compared with other European nations. If it looks like utility companies are more interested in profits than in a reliable power supply in Germany, then these (four) companies are in trouble.

  8. Tobias,

    I don´t think wind power was the problem.
    If there had been a “lower windcraft energy injection into the network” in Northern Germany it wouldn´t have changed anything in the Ruhr region or in Southern Germany. Not to mention the rest of Europe. 🙂

    Demand was up due to the cold weather but somehow the wind power energy couldn´t be transmitted to the Ruhr region or further South. Looks more like poor planning or poor coordination between the German utility companies in my opinion. Or simply aversion to spend money. 🙂

    I mean utility companies probably get weather forecasts, right? And cold weather probably means a higher consumption. So if you know that:
    – one of the high voltage North-South lines is switched off for maintenance and
    – another one will be switched off for a ship passage
    – and it gets cold
    you should assume that:
    – demand will be higher because of cold weather
    – supply from Northern Germany will be lower
    and you should plan accordingly.

    Meaning that you should look at your own “reserve capacity” (stand-by power stations). And if you calculate that things might get hairy for the 2-3 hours of the ship passage, you should consider buying electricity from other European countries.
    Just in case…

    That of course will cost money. And it might be totally unnecessary if nothing happens. Which might – gasp! – reduce your profits!

    The German utility companies gambled and they lost. In the past, they defended the relatively high electricity prices in Germany with the high reliability of power supply in Germany. Just 22 minutes of lost power supply per year on average. Now they´ve got some explaining to do.

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