Science 5 min read

You Have No Power Here: MIT says Climate Change to Blame for Blackouts

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An MIT study projects the potential impact of climate change on large power transformers in U.S. Northeast.

We rely on electricity for so many things these days. It would be a shame if it all blacked out.

As it turns out, we may be looking down the barrel of just such a problem. According to climate scientists, the rising global average surface temperature presents a collection of dangers for the electrical grid.


Some of the biggest blackouts in U.S. history were caused by raging storms in 2017, such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But, that isn’t the only problem.

Climatologists project that prolonged, rising heat could present a danger to a key part of power grids called the large power transformer (LPT).

An LPT is a transformer that is rated at 100 mega volt-amperes (MVA) or more, and they are scattered all across the U.S. Now, more than 70% are past their expected lifetime of 40 years.

However, even though they should last 40 years, it doesn’t mean that they will. High rates of heat are degrading them. As you would imagine, this problem is one that requires a timely solution.

Let’s just hope that we can tackle it in time.

The (Eventual) Death of the LPT

LPTs are old tech, but most power grids rely on them to stay active.

Thus, when scientists start telling us that they could be dying off early, we should take the problem very seriously. After all, who wants to be left in the dark?

Overheating reduces the structural integrity of the insulation that LPTs use, which can cause some very bad short circuits. The rising heat can actually cause chemical reactions that rapidly age the insulation.

Rising heat is degrading our power grids? This could be a potential 'in' for #renewablesClick To Tweet

So, to assess the risk of widespread LPT failure, researchers at MIT were set to the task of finding out just how much degradation was taking place.

Their findings indicated that for every background rise in temperature of 1 degree Celsius, the lifetime of a transformer decreases by about four years. That’s about ten percent of it’s suggested lifespan!

Add in the consideration that mean global warming projections predict anywhere from 2 to 4 degrees within this century, and we have an estimate for the problem. That’s about 20 to 40 percent less life from LPTs.

“Studies such as these spotlight how vulnerable the intricate electrical network upon which we rely is to damaging weather and climate events,” says Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, one of the co-authors of the study.

“Studies such as these spotlight how vulnerable the intricate electrical network upon which we rely is to damaging weather and climate events.”

The answer to the problem, for now, is to proactively address the lifespan of existing LPTs. As long as we know that they are degrading, and can get some proof of that, such a thing should be possible. But that’s a problem for the power companies to solve.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we should concern ourselves with lightening their load through the use of renewable energy resources.

The Birth of Solar Solutions

Solar power is nothing new, but like any kind of tech, it has been developing rapidly during Industry 4.0.

The threat of global warming has caused many people to think proactively, causing them to invest in alternative energy. Some people tile their roof with solar panels, while tech giants like Microsoft and Apple have vowed to reduce their environmental footprint as much as possible.

And for all of those people who thought it impossible to build a new infrastructure for energyElon Musk is doing his part with every Gigafactory that Tesla produces.

Let’s face it, when the whole climate change phenomenon came out of the environmental science community, there was some pushback. For my own part, I questioned whether or not we could sustain a move to renewable energy.

Over time, though, I became convinced of one important thing about any technology. It isn’t always perfect at first, but with a little investment and a few years of research, it can change the world.

So far, I’ve seen renewable energy improve by leaps and bounds over the years. Take solar panels, for example. You can bet someone is improving them right now.

Take this new chemical composite, for example. We used to have problems capturing enough solar energy, but if that tech can scale up to commercial use, we’ll be able to trap heat from many sources. So now, not only will it take energy from the sun, but it will also get some energy back from your stove at night.

We’re still not at the point of abandoning the LPT yet, but we’re close to lessening our dependence on it. For now, power companies should take this research into account when deciding to build another LPT for a power grid.

Hopefully we don’t have to wait for intense rolling blackouts before truly proactive steps to enhance LPT capability are taken.

Is this an opportunity for green roofs, solar windows, etc to power larger areas?

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  1. Tripp Tucker December 21 at 11:31 am GMT

    3DFS Software-Defined Electricity reduces heat in the system that includes large power transformers, LV pole transformers, Dry transformers, etc.

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