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It isn't easy to start an electrical power grid back up after it has been shut down completely. Problems can include a lack of spare transformers, "cold start" loads, and the need for electricity to start up a power plant.
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Problems Restoring Electrical Power After a Blackout

Sometimes a whole electric power system shuts down. This can happen after a strong space weather storm. It is hard to get the whole system running again after it has been shut down all the way.

The main problem is that it takes energy to produce energy. Most kinds of power plants generate electricity from water that has been heated to become steam. The power plants need some electricity to open valves and run pumps before it can boil water to make steam. So the power plant needs some electricity to make more electricity. Other kinds of power plants have similar problems. For example, hydroelectric plants need electricity to open huge valves that allow water to flow.

Space weather storms can damage expensive transformers. Electric power companies don't keep many spare transformers around because they cost so much - sometimes $10 million or more! It can take up to a year to get a new transformer made. That could mean that a power system might be down for a long time if a big transformer was destroyed.

When you turn on a light bulb, it takes a lot more energy to light it to begin with than it does to keep it going. The same is true for most electrical devices. It can take up to 10 times more power to start something than it does to keep it running. When a power system tries to start back up after a blackout, lots and lots of devices that use electricity try to come on at the same time. They need lots of extra power to start up. That means the electric system needs to make more power than normal. That makes it hard for the system to start back up, too.

Last modified February 18, 2009 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA