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U.S. Electrical Grid on the Edge of Failure

U.S. Electrical Grid on the Edge of Failure

Facebook can lose a few users and remain a perfectly stable network, but where the national grid is concerned simple geography dictates that it is always just a few transmission lines from collapse.

That is according to a mathematical study of spatial networks by physicists in Israel and the U.S. Study co-author Shlomo Havlin of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, says that the research builds on earlier work by incorporating a more explicit analysis of how the spatial nature of physical networks affects their fundamental stability. The upshot, published August 25 in Nature Physics, is that spatial networks are necessarily dependent on any number of critical nodes whose failure can lead to abrupt—and unpredictable—collapse.

The electric grid, which operates as a series of networks that are defined by geography, is a prime example, says Havlin. “Whenever you have such dependencies in the system, failure in one place leads to failure in another place, which cascades into collapse.”

“I suppose I should be open-minded to new research, but I'm not convinced,” says Jeff Dagle, an electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., who served on the government task force that investigated the 2003 outage. “The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the physics of how the power grid operates.”The warning comes ten years after a blackout that crippled parts of the midwest and northeastern United States and parts of Canada. In that case, a series of errors resulted in the loss of three transmission lines in Ohio over the course of about an hour. Once the third line went down, the outage cascaded towards the coast, cutting power to some 50 million people. Havlin says that this outage is an example of the inherent instability his study describes, but others question whether the team’s conclusions can really be extrapolated to the real world.