Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The attacks on transformers in North Carolina reveal a major danger


Karl Denninger points out that the attacks highlight our lack of preparedness to deal with such issues.

Two substations taken out with (presumed) small-arms rifle fire (e.g. bog-standard hunting rifles) from what obviously were a very small group of people, perhaps one or two at each location pissed off about who-knows-what.

Question: Why couldn't this be immediately fixed?

Answer: They don't have spares for the parts that were damaged.

. . .

Why do they not have the spares?

Because we sent our supply lines overseas, we made no provisions to have spares, and the regulators at the state and federal level sat on their hands and played with themselves instead of requiring that providers of critical services, such as electricity, had a sufficient stock of spares to cover both routine failures and those caused by weather or low-grade assaults perpetrated by small numbers of people.

This is the gross incompetence we have throughout our society.  It is the manifestation of "oh nothing bad will ever happen so we don't have to be prepared for it" that has shown up in all manner of other places, such as the cars that are completed except for chips in their engine computers without which they will not run, and thus they're sitting in a field unsold.

. . .

What you should learn from this is that this sort of disruption is tiny compared to what even one hundred dedicated men, uncorrelated and thus unable to be interdicted in advance could do any time they decided to.

Further, while I'm sure they'll find the parts somewhere in the US and restore power, if the damage was to fifty counties instead of one the odds are high that said parts would not exist at all in the United States and might not be available in sufficient quantity to actually restore service to everyone for months or even longer.

There's more at the link.

Speaking about the same issue, an anonymous commenter at Raconteur Report noted:

Just in case you all are not aware of the reality of our power grid and the companies that maintain them. Regional depots have maybe 1 or at most 2 of those larger HV transformers sitting in a warehouse, these are the ubiquitous monsters about 10x10 ft that convert the high tension down to more usable voltages for local distribution in our towns and factories. The smaller pole mounted units, perhaps in the few hundreds per depot, seeing they are a more common failure point due to heat, leaks, lighting strikes, trees falling or wayward ordnance.

What this means is that if there is ever a real effort to damage our grid by enemies, foreign or domestic, there is not enough replacement equipment on the ground in the entire country to fix it quickly.

Now the cute kicker or as they say, "and now the rest of the story". Most of our grid maintenance parts come from, yep, the PRC. And guess who will conveniently have "issues" in ramping up production for the export market, especially when they themselves are using most of the factory output internally (remember those 5 new coal plants going live/week over there)? Yes good sirs, we are royally screwed if any untoward events suddenly ramp up.

As a former Civil Defense sector officer, trained in disaster planning and recovery, allow me to assure you, that commenter is absolutely correct.  His words apply to every country on the planet.  The electrical utilities simply can't afford to stockpile large quantities of replacement transformers.  The bigger and more expensive the transformer, the fewer they'll have on hand.  Even simple components such as the glass insulators used on high-tension electrical cables criss-crossing the country are only stocked in limited quantities.  If random individuals were to pause alongside rural roads and shoot out, say, a thousand of those insulators, there'd be the devil to pay to replace them all in the short term.  If they shot out ten thousand . . . forget about it.  There aren't enough power crews, let alone insulators, to repair that sort of damage in anything less than weeks, possibly months.

If we don't make parts locally, we're dependent on outsiders to supply them - if they feel like doing so, and if they have the capacity to supply them in a hurry, and if the supply chain problems we're already experiencing allow them to get here fast enough to be useful.  And, if electrical utilities can't afford to stockpile enough of them, that needs to be funded as a priority by state and federal governments (not that any of our legislators appear to be aware of the need - they'd rather spend that money on entitlement programs and other areas that might garner votes for their re-election).

Food for thought . . .



Ray - SoCal said...

The transformer issue has been talked about for years, sigh.

Obviously not enough grift to get it solved.

2013 California attack made the WSJ:

Rick T said...

Dale at MostlyCajun has talked about this for years. Large transformers are built to order overseas, and the utility regulators and Wall Street don't allow companies to keep spares on hand. That is a "waste of money" so the utilities shrug their shoulders and hope the minimal spares on hand for normal failure rates will cover.

After the hurricane recovery in Florida I will bet most of the South is tapped out for spare transformers, etc.

Xoph said...

Also we have very limited repair capability for those transformers. I've been away from that business for almost 10 years now, but very few shops had the equipment or personnel to rewind and repair a large transformer. They are fundamentally hand built. You need men who know what they are doing. The repair shops that were left had more business than they could handle.

Interesting times.

Orvan Taurus said...

Long ago, after a con that has ceased to be, I was regaled with the tale of the fellow who for some reason (or no reason) had taken to sawing through a support guy for a commercial transmitting antenna/tower. As some might recall, Back When, such things were not fended off. They are now. Why? Well, eventually he sawed all the through the guy (or far enough) and the guy failed... not long after, so did the antenna tower. Thus are the towers and guy anchors now fenced... Perfectly secure? No. But secure against J. Average Kook. A DETERMINED attacker could take things out, but now they have to work a bit.

CDH said...

Spares cost money. In a deregulated environment the company with the most spares is operating at a significant disadvantage. There is nothing in our regulatory environment that encourages reliability at that level, and consumers seem to only be interested in the 'lowest rate'...then bitch and whine when a once a decade cold snap causes outages (for example). TANSTAAFL in action, you get what you pay for and the American public is not willing to pay for higher reliability in most everything.

The same can be said for generation infrastruture. It is already overtaxed as recent blackouts and rolling outages amply demonstrate.

Michael Downing said...

As another posted this is not the first time this has happened and my guess is similar attacks will ramp up over the near future. Just think of all the disgruntled people who already have a hard time making ends meet, buying gas, groceries and energy bills and that number is about to grow exponentially as we head into 2023. As with the previous warnings about the systems vulnerability to EMP attacks and solar flares nothing has been done. It is not a system failure, it has been designed in. The Ukes and Europeans may not be the only ones left to freeze in the dark. Got wood heat and plenty of wood? Remember you will always have bugs to eat.

Beans said...

To say what others have said and to elaborate, spares cost money.

And spares get taxed as assets.

And spares take up space.

And spares get out-dated by government regulations. (various environmental regulations and other bullscat.)

All which freak bean-cutters out, which makes not having too many spares a very good thing, for the bean-counters.

Solve the problem by bringing construction back here, by giving tax breaks to keeping spares around, by encouraging utilities to share more in time of need, by developing a strategic reserve of said pieces-parts.

Seem to recall Trump talking about this at one time and his swamp-staff shutting it down.

Skyler the Weird said...

20 years ago yesterday we had a tremendous ice storm in Charlotte. Something like 50 transformers blew. Took them 3 weeks to get the power back to everyone.

We were without power for five days living downstairs cooking like Ma Ingalls from Little House in the fireplace.

Be prepared it may take a while to recover.

MNW said...

Their is a cultural combination of that to. I have seen it in every industry i have worked on.

People have this perception that it won't fail today, or tomorrow and if it does I will have it the next day - like Amazon Prime

Very few people have a real sense of the manufacturing logistics of anything - especally something large or specialized. This is compounded by the export of our industry and the subsequent withering if our knowledge and skills base.

Do we have companies that make or service such things? Yes, but they are few and will not expand for fear of over extending in a boom bust cycle or because it is nearly impossible to get good workers (importing isn't a solution)

Xoph said...

CDH, the public is unaware. I used to teach a course and when it was found out my full time job was in the energy industry I would start getting questions. The kids were being taught in school that wind and solar would meet all our needs. When I asked who had the cheapest and most reliable power in the world, no one would guess the US. It was always someone in Europe.

When the big push to deregulate came about most people weren't aware the major sources of cost weren't generation but Transmission and Distribution, and taxes. A big tado was made over the electricity price in New York, but fact was we could give the electricity away for free and the taxes plus T&D costs would still keep us above average. Niagara Mohawk even put the amount of taxes as a separate line item on the bill, which was against state law.

Like many of our current problems this has been brought about by politicians. Inventory is bad because it not only ties up income, but in 39 states it is taxed. So companies are disincentivized from keeping critical spares on the shelf. Dig into the whole PCB mess as that significantly impacted the transformer market.

In any event one person with a .50BMG could probably bring a whole state to its knees in a few days if they could keep from getting caught. Might even make a nice false flag event against the 2A folks.

Linda Fox said...

Time to bring in Redneck Engineers.
I'm actually kidding. The ones that could do it are either very old or dead.
This situation has been talked about for many years; but, no one did anything about it.

John Brockus said...

Related: Go to Bill Quick's site and buy his book Lightning Fall to see more about consequences of losing the grid.

He did a lot of research for that book, and it's grim.

Jeremy VanGelder said...

I know a guy who's business rebuilds and resells transformers, in the US. They have money falling out of their ears. It is a good place to work. They didn't fire anyone back when the mandates came through.


Mauser said...

I've heard for decades that a few Jihadis with a map and some rifles could cripple the country by shooting up substations. Looks like someone's decided to put that to the test.

And of course the left's first inclination was to claim without evidence it was done to shut down a drag show for kids....

Jonathan H said...

This isn't the first time it's happened, and it won't be the last.
There are some easy counters to it, but they involve lots of manual labor that I doubt we'll see done until this problem becomes more widespread.

John T. Block said...

G. Gordon Liddy wrote an article 30, 40 years ago describing the frailties of our infrastructure for some high-brow magazine I can't remember. Two, maybe three rail bridges across the Mississippi if dropped would halt nearly ALL rail traffic East to West. Also talked about the fragility of the power grid nation wide.bottom line is if you can SEE large transformers, they are vulnerable to rifles from .30-30 on up. Basicly, we're scrod.

Rude Pessimist said...

Do you mean you can't order a transform off amazon and get free next day shipping?!?!

Bob said...

Find a place out in the middle of nowhere - no cameras, no police, no people - where High Voltage power lines are strung up on those massive steel towers that run for miles and miles (the kind of electrical power lines we all see every day and not notice), tie a few sticks of 60 that farmers and ranchers use to blow fence post holes in rock around one or two of the legs and when it goes down who knows how many more towers it will pull down with it... in both directions.
Choose a key tower where the line changes directions and PRESTO! The line is down for miles. If you take out just one tower in each of our three major power grids, countless millions of Americans are going to wish our elected leaders had paid more attention.
If you don't think our enemies haven't figured this out and will strike when they decide, quit snorting and smoking that crap that makes you stupid and start paying attention.
My money says they are already here... with much better stuff than a few sticks of 60 stolen from some ranchers storage shed. And they already know their targets, just waiting for orders.
And here you think that a winter storm will be bad? Well then, I got a bridge I'd like to sell you. (before it gets blown up)

Michael Downing said...

Our entire infrastructure in vulnerable and there have been other less publicized attacks on the electric grid.


Entire area water supplies are left unprotected from attack, highway and railway bridges, dams, tunnels, communications both cellular and internet, chemical and petroleum storage and the list goes on are either not protected or not adequately protected. The potential targets are everywhere and they cannot all be protected.

In the end you do the best you can to be prepared for the worst. We were blessed to find a homestead with a true artesian well so we can have water without power both at the ground floor of our house and to outside water hydrants, The well overflow runs a one inch pipe with constant flow 24/7 into our pond to keep the well head from building too much pressure. We heat with wood, have a whole house generator and can survive off grid. No one in government has been concerned about such matters for years and would rather funnel billions of dollars to Ukraine or any other such foreign intervention covering up just another money laundering scheme. Long ago we figured out no one is coming to save us and where we relocated to in the mountains you need to depend upon yourself what few neighbors you have.

So it goes...

michigan doug said...

There's about 75,328 substations in this country.

That dosn't count the towers or the little transformers on
every other pole.

That's a lot of targets.

John in Indy said...

Lots of targets? The East coast power shutdown 10 or so years ago was caused by a guy in central Indiana pushing the wrong button, and instead of transferring power from Ohio to Illinois, it went the other way, causing a cascade failure.
G. Gordon Liddys' article noted that the transformers handling Canadian hydropower to the American Northeast are / were made in France, there are no spartes, and they then took 18 months to build one. That manufacturing capacity may no longer exist. 40% of the electric power used in the Northeast is run through these units.
Liddy also noted as points of concern the railroad bridges at Pittsburg, the LBG ternimals at Long Beach and elsewhere, and the water pumping stations at the Colorado River and the South end of the Central Valley, supplying water to Southern California. Without extetnal supplies, the LA basin has less than 18 hours of water supply.
Prepare to muddle through, if you can, there are so many single points for failure that I don't see how the Progs tap dancing in a minefield fails to set several of these off in sequence.

Jim k. said...

I remember that. I was in central NC then. We were without power for close to 3 weeks too. They brought in power crews from GA and Alabama to help out it was so bad. Praise the Lord for our fireplace.

stine2469 said...

All I can think of is the picture of a water tower with a bullet hole in it. That jackass with the .50BMG could affect a huge area's water supply with a single magazine.