To distribute power across the country, we have used power lines and stations to create an intricate network of energy supplies. While our network is expansive and capable of moving vast amounts of electricity, efficient distribution creates a complication in delivering consumable electricity. High current electricity wastes energy in the form of heat. While this is fantastic in a toaster or blow dryer, it is inefficient in a powerline. To combat inefficiency, we lower the current by increasing voltage. Powerlines typically carry energy at 300,000 to 750,000 volts – a stark contrast to consumer’s sockets which are typically 120 or 240 volts. Because any household appliance would be destroyed by a powerline’s voltage, but a consumer-usable voltage would be lost journeying cross-country, we must use transformers to modify voltages to appropriate levels.
Transformers can be “Step-up” to increase voltage or “Step-down” to lower voltages. To manipulate the voltage, a different ratio of wire wraps are present on each side of the transformer and the flow is controlled by semiconductors and tolerance gauges in the core. Because current and voltage change as electricity travels, the transformer must be built with specific hardware to accommodate the power it must receive and produce. As such, the machinery of an industrial transformer is extremely unique.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this equipment to the functionality of the electrical grid – without a functional transformer, there is no usable energy and often no ability to transport energy. Transformers at a station control the access to electricity for their entire region, with the potential to impact millions if any part if the unique machinery were to fail.
Currently the range of concerns regarding transformer security, as identified by ICF and the Congressional Research Service, can be broken down into industry concerns, natural occurrences, and resilience to intentional threats.
Many industry concerns revolve around the uniqueness of transformers. Because each must be made specifically for the intended location, the market is not particularly competitive. Long lead times on manufacturing, the consolidation of manufacturers, and access to raw materials are all potential threats to the ideal implementation of transformers.
Terrorism targeting the electrical grid is not a novel concern, and cyber security has been put in place to mitigate risk. Basic security measures – fences or cameras – may be present for high voltage transformers, but most protective measures are to protect people and the environment from the machinery, not to guard against malicious acts. Ultimately though, these approaches are logical as there is such a minimal presence of such sabotage that a data informed conclusion or risk assessment is nearly impossible, and thus has not been elaborated on by the DOE beyond basic cybersecurity. The biggest threat to transformer security is far less glamorous – the passage of time in the elements.
The most pressing concerns are natural wear and natural disasters. Transformers need replacement every 20-25 years, as estimated by American National Standards Institute/Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (ANSI/IEEE). Currently, the funding needed to update infrastructure is insufficient to replace transformers at the recommended pace, and malfunctions due to age can cause substantial risk ranging from power outages to starting wildfires. While the elements weather transformers at a predictable rate, sudden destruction from a natural disaster can cause issues for custom built equipment. The previously discussed industry concerns compounded with natural occurrences can quickly create precarious situations in our electrical grid.
Currently, a spare equipment database is being created to more rapidly repair transformers. A coordinated effort is being made to identify critical transformers. CRS has recommended a closer eye on mergers and acquisitions in the industry, as well as a focus on increasing the domestic accessibility of raw materials. The vulnerabilities of the American power grid can be changed through continued support and sustained funding increases which ensures the systematic changing of these transformers.
Transformers are critical to the daily life of people across the country. A focus must be kept on the state of the grid as the electrical needs of America move through the twenty-first century. Through sustained infrastructure funding and careful monitoring of the industry, power can be efficiently transported and accessed for years to come.
- “Addressing Security and Reliability Concerns of Large Power Transformers | Department of Energy.” Energy.Gov, https://www.energy.gov/oe/addressing-security-and-reliability-concerns-large-power-transformers. Accessed 11 June 2023.
- Csanyi, Edvard. Overview of LPTs. https://electrical-engineering-portal.com/an-overview-of-large-power-transformer-lpt. Accessed 11 June 2023.
- “How Do Electricity Transformers Work? – Explain That Stuff.” Explain That Stuff, https://www.facebook.com/explainthatstuff, 16 Oct. 2007, https://www.explainthatstuff.com/transformers.html.
- ICF. Assessment of Large Power Transformer Risk Mitigation Strategies. Fairfax, VA. 2016.
- Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability U.S. Department of Energy. June 2012.
- “Physical Security of the U.S. Power Grid: High-Voltage Transformer Substations.” Congressional Research Service, July 2015.
- “Transformer Maintenance.” Hydroelectric Research and Technical Services Group D-8450 United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 2000.