When an eerie blue glow lit up the sky above New York City last December, some were disappointed to learn that aliens weren’t involved. The cause was, in fact, terrestrial: a transformer had exploded at a local power plant. 

For the most part, transformers—which help power companies transmit electricity efficiently by altering voltages—are relatively safe. Fewer than one percent explode—but those explosions can be deadly, and result in flying projectiles, toxic fires, or oil spills.

Transformers rupture due to a buildup of excess pressure in the tank in which they are encased, which is usually filled with mineral oil that acts as a coolant. Contaminants within the oil, the degradation of transformer parts, and electrical storms can all cause a fault, called an internal arc, that results in a rapid release of energy. 

“When you have an arc inside the transformer, it heats up the oil and the oil burns to create a gas, which causes high pressure,” explains Samuel Brodeur, a senior mechanical engineer at the power and technology firm ABB, who is based in Varennes, Canada. Conventional tank designs are limited in their capacity to withstand such fault energies—which in severe cases, can reach as high as 150 megajoules (MJ), the equivalent of 150 sticks of dynamite—and so Brodeur and his colleagues have spent the past seven years working to devise a stronger, more resilient transformer tank.

Their solution, described in a paper published 12 June in IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery, is called TXpand. The idea is startlingly simple: design a tank that’s flexible enough to deform to absorb all that extra pressure without rupturing.

“It’s a bit like blowing [up] a balloon,” says Jean-Bernard Dastous, a research scientist from Canadian power supplier Hydro-Québec, which collaborated with ABB on the project. “If it’s very rigid, it will be difficult to expand the balloon. But if it’s made of a very flexible material, it’s easier for you to inflate it.”

ABB, which currently supplies roughly 70 percent of Hydro-Québec’s transformers, alters tank flexibility by using different types of steel, varying the thickness of the wall and cover, and reinforcing weak points such as the corners, among other things.

To design what ABB calls an “arc resistant” tank, the team first had to create a mechanical model that could predict the pressure at which a given tank would deform and subsequently rupture, based on its size and material properties. Hydro-Québec, in particular, wanted ABB to build a tank that could withstand 20 MJ of energy without rupturing—a level that would cause a “catastrophic failure” in most transformers and one that Dastous says “would cover 95 percent of faults occurring on the network.”

And so ABB plugged equations into its numerical model and spent months building a full-size tank (roughly 5 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, and 4 meters high). For safety reasons, the tank was filled with water instead of oil, and contained a replica of the active part of a transformer. The first test, carried out on a frigid winter’s day in November 2017 in an open field at Hydro-Québec’s research facilities close to Montreal, was meant to demonstrate the tank could withstand the specified 20 MJ. Until then, the highest energy levels tested were just over half that value.

The team injected pressurized air measuring 200 atmospheres, which is equivalent to the pressure experienced two kilometers below sea level. The tank bulged at its sides, but did not explode.

The second test, they hoped, would demonstrate that at a given pressure, the tank would rupture at a chosen point. “We wanted to make sure that failure happens at the top of the transformer because when it happens there, less oil will spill into the environment,” explains Dastous.

Following an injection of 30 MJ of energy, the test tank did exactly this, proving that “our calculations and numerical test methodologies worked,” he says. The results have enabled Hydro-Québec to come up with “new improved arc-resistant specifications” for its suppliers to follow. The specifications, to be implemented in the coming months, will hopefully lead to fewer transformers exploding. ABB, on the other hand, has since applied its TXpand solution to more than 50 transformer designs.

Brodeur says: “Because we are able to prevent most of the tank rupture cases, it’s safer for the people who work around the transformer and it’s also very good for the environment because we can prevent major oil spills and toxic fires.”

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

The number of charging stations in Utrecht has risen sharply over the past decade.

“People are buying more and more electric cars,” says Eerenberg, the alderman. City officials noticed a surge in such purchases in recent years, only to hear complaints from Utrechters that they then had to go through a long application process to have a charger installed where they could use it. Eerenberg, a computer scientist by training, is still working to unwind these knots. He realizes that the city has to go faster if it is to meet the Dutch government’s mandate for all new cars to be zero-emission in eight years.

The amount of energy being used to charge EVs in Utrecht has skyrocketed in recent years.

Although similar mandates to put more zero-emission vehicles on the road in New York and California failed in the past, the pressure for vehicle electrification is higher now. And Utrecht city officials want to get ahead of demand for greener transportation solutions. This is a city that just built a central underground parking garage for 12,500 bicycles and spent years digging up a freeway that ran through the center of town, replacing it with a canal in the name of clean air and healthy urban living.

A driving force in shaping these changes is Matthijs Kok, the city’s energy-transition manager. He took me on a tour—by bicycle, naturally—of Utrecht’s new green infrastructure, pointing to some recent additions, like a stationary battery designed to store solar energy from the many panels slated for installation at a local public housing development.

This map of Utrecht shows the city’s EV-charging infrastructure. Orange dots are the locations of existing charging stations; red dots denote charging stations under development. Green dots are possible sites for future charging stations.

“This is why we all do it,” Kok says, stepping away from his propped-up bike and pointing to a brick shed that houses a 400-kilowatt transformer. These transformers are the final link in the chain that runs from the power-generating plant to high-tension wires to medium-voltage substations to low-voltage transformers to people’s kitchens.

There are thousands of these transformers in a typical city. But if too many electric cars in one area need charging, transformers like this can easily become overloaded. Bidirectional charging promises to ease such problems.

Kok works with others in city government to compile data and create maps, dividing the city into neighborhoods. Each one is annotated with data on population, types of households, vehicles, and other data. Together with a contracted data-science group, and with input from ordinary citizens, they developed a policy-driven algorithm to help pick the best locations for new charging stations. The city also included incentives for deploying bidirectional chargers in its 10-year contracts with vehicle charge-station operators. So, in these chargers went.

Experts expect bidirectional charging to work particularly well for vehicles that are part of a fleet whose movements are predictable. In such cases, an operator can readily program when to charge and discharge a car’s battery.

We Drive Solar earns credit by sending battery power from its fleet to the local grid during times of peak demand and charges the cars’ batteries back up during off-peak hours. If it does that well, drivers don’t lose any range they might need when they pick up their cars. And these daily energy trades help to keep prices down for subscribers.

Encouraging car-sharing schemes like We Drive Solar appeals to Utrecht officials because of the struggle with parking—a chronic ailment common to most growing cities. A huge construction site near the Utrecht city center will soon add 10,000 new apartments. Additional housing is welcome, but 10,000 additional cars would not be. Planners want the ratio to be more like one car for every 10 households—and the amount of dedicated public parking in the new neighborhoods will reflect that goal.

This photograph shows four parked vehicles, each with the words \u201cWe Drive Solar\u201d prominently displayed, and each plugged into a charge point.Some of the cars available from We Drive Solar, including these Hyundai Ioniq 5s, are capable of bidirectional charging.We Drive Solar

Projections for the large-scale electrification of transportation in Europe are daunting. According to a Eurelectric/Deloitte report, there could be 50 million to 70 million electric vehicles in Europe by 2030, requiring several million new charging points, bidirectional or otherwise. Power-distribution grids will need hundreds of billions of euros in investment to support these new stations.

The morning before Eerenberg sat down with me at city hall to explain Utrecht’s charge-station planning algorithm, war broke out in Ukraine. Energy prices now strain many households to the breaking point. Gasoline has reached $6 a gallon (if not more) in some places in the United States. In Germany in mid-June, the driver of a modest VW Golf had to pay about €100 (more than $100) to fill the tank. In the U.K., utility bills shot up on average by more than 50 percent on the first of April.

The war upended energy policies across the European continent and around the world, focusing people’s attention on energy independence and security, and reinforcing policies already in motion, such as the creation of emission-free zones in city centers and the replacement of conventional cars with electric ones. How best to bring about the needed changes is often unclear, but modeling can help.

Nico Brinkel, who is working on his doctorate in Wilfried van Sark’s photovoltaics-integration lab at Utrecht University, focuses his models at the local level. In his calculations, he figures that, in and around Utrecht, low-voltage grid reinforcements cost about €17,000 per transformer and about €100,000 per kilometer of replacement cable. “If we are moving to a fully electrical system, if we’re adding a lot of wind energy, a lot of solar, a lot of heat pumps, a lot of electric vehicles…,” his voice trails off. “Our grid was not designed for this.”

But the electrical infrastructure will have to keep up. One of Brinkel’s studies suggests that if a good fraction of the EV chargers are bidirectional, such costs could be spread out in a more manageable way. “Ideally, I think it would be best if all of the new chargers were bidirectional,” he says. “The extra costs are not that high.”

Berg doesn’t need convincing. He has been thinking about what bidirectional charging offers the whole of the Netherlands. He figures that 1.5 million EVs with bidirectional capabilities—in a country of 8 million cars—would balance the national grid. “You could do anything with renewable energy then,” he says.

Seeing that his country is starting with just hundreds of cars capable of bidirectional charging, 1.5 million is a big number. But one day, the Dutch might actually get there.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “A Road Test for Vehicle-to-Grid Tech.”

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