Among the most basic power equipment components—transformers—are in short supply in both the U.S. and Ukraine, increasing their power grids’ vulnerability. In the U.S., a spate of hurricanes, global supply holdups, domestic terror attacks on grid infrastructure, and a dearth of domestic manufacturing has depleted stocks. In Ukraine, relentless Russian bombardment of electrical substations is destroying transformers faster than they can be replaced.
Both situations came before the U.S. Congress this week. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared before a joint session of Congress appealing for more weapons to combat Russia’s attacks. Zelenskyy struck a defiant tone, saying bombs and blackouts will not steal Ukraine’s Christmas: “Even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, members of Congress made a last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful appeal for federal dollars to boost transformer production.
Transformers are like trust—months or years to build, seconds or minutes to destroy.
The failure to squeeze the transformer ask into the $1.7-trillion government funding bill Congress is expected to send to President Biden today disappointed utilities and their supporters, after more than 6 months of collaboration with the Biden Administration making the case for support.
“We got lost a little bit in the shuffle. It’s a real blow,” says Alex Strong, a lobbyist for the National Association of Home Builders, whose members’ are running out of street-side transformer boxes. “Developments are grinding to a halt because of this one supply chain chokepoint,” says Strong.
Since the birth of modern power grids, millions of transformers on street poles and in switchyards have underpinned the practicality of alternating current. Transformers adjust electricity between tens to hundreds of thousands of volts enabling electricity to move with low losses and the 100-120 volts that more safely power household appliances.
Yet nearly 140 years since their invention, transformers remain much like trust: they can take months or even years to build and just seconds to minutes to destroy.
Projectiles puncturing their cases can release or ignite the heat-transfer oils that protect their intricate coil windings from overheating, often causing irreparable damage. That can be a crippling weakness at a time of increasing attacks on transformers.
In Ukraine, Russian barrages destroy multiple transformers almost daily. That’s made transformers the most sought-after hardware in the country after Western missile systems. And it has forced Ukraine’s grid operators to appeal for spares from their counterparts abroad.
A cobbler works under the flashlight during a blackout in Lviv on 16 December 2022, after Russian strikes targeted the power infrastructure. Yuiry Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images
Deliberate grid attacks are also raising anxiety in the U.S. Gunfire that took out the occasional transformer can on a pole five years ago is increasingly destroying transformers in substations that can weigh over 200 tonnes and feed power to neighborhoods or to entire cities.
Coordinated firearms attacks on a pair of Duke Energy transmission substations in North Carolina this month grabbed headlines by blacking out about 45,000 people for up to four days. But in the last two months alone, deliberate damage to substations has sparked blackouts across the U.S., including in a second area in North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon and Washington state. All remain unsolved.
Suicide Necklaces on Neo-Nazis
The scale of hostile outages in the U.S. pales compared to Ukraine’s suffering. But there are unsettling commonalities. In both countries, substation attacks seem designed to sow chaos and fear, and are at least partly motivated by an antipathy that’s anywhere from reckless to outright vengeful.
Shots from a high-powered rifle knocked out an American Electric Power substation in Centerburg, Ohio last month, rattling nerves already stirred by disturbing headlines in February. That month, in a Columbus court, an Ohio resident and two other men pleaded guilty to a white-supremacist plot. Hatched in an online chat group in 2019, it targeted multiple substations across the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We were seeing increased interest throughout this year from extreme weather. As soon as the Duke incident occurred, everything’s shifted into physical attacks.”
—David Rupert, CEO, Grid Assurance
The conspirators “expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest,” said Timothy Langan, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division via a February 2022 press release that also cited their “adherence to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist views.”
Each defendant was tasked with hitting a substation in a different region of the US. They possessed the arms required, as well as “suicide necklaces” laced with the potent narcotic fentanyl.
Six months after the Columbus filings, federal authorities became aware that a “suspected white supremacist” posted online the “exact coordinates of more than 75,000 substations across the U.S.,” according to cable news network NewsNation.
Attacks and warnings are boosting utility interest in programs that give them access to shared stockpiles of transformers and other critical equipment. “We have seen an increased interest. We have about half a dozen potential new subscribers,” says David Rupert, CEO of Columbus-based Grid Assurance, the newest equipment share in the U.S.
“Until the Duke Energy incident we were seeing increased interest throughout this year from extreme weather. As soon as the Duke incident occurred, everything’s shifted into physical attacks,” says Rupert.
Grid Assurance was inspired by the 2013 sniper attack that knocked out 17 large transformers at a substation near San Jose. Since it became operational in 2020, the organization has signed up 31 utilities in 23 states. It stockpiles large transformers, circuit breakers and other components used in transmission systems, and releases them if subscribers are hit by a physical attack, cyberattack, or extreme weather such as hurricanes.
Pooling resources provides an insurance policy against high-impact events expected to occur infrequently to any one firm. But Rupert says more and closer manufacturing would enhance security. Tighter supplies mean longer delays to replace stocks that could be cleared out by a major incident causing widespread destruction—such as a massive solar storm, or attack via electromagnetic weapons.
Large transformers Grid Assurance acquired in 2020 to be delivered in 18-24 months would take up to 39 months to replace today. Worse still, says Rupert, 70 percent of its transformers are manufactured outside North America. None are made in the U.S. “Onshoring as much of that as we can is very important,” he says.
Electrical Steel Wanted
A February 2022 report from Idaho National Laboratory explored the challenges contributing to transformer shortages, and honed in on one key ingredient: grain-oriented electrical steel. It’s the grade required for compact and efficient transformers, only one U.S. firm makes it, and the national lab study found its quality and quantity lacking. As a result, domestic producers serve only one-fifth of U.S. transformer demand—mostly small devices powering several homes or blocks.
The study identified funding and coordination under the Defense Production Act (DPA)—deployed in 2021 to deliver medical supplies to combat COVID-19—as a key opportunity to expand domestic production of grain-oriented steel and transformers, along with other grid components including circuit breakers and switchgear. The Biden Administration endorsed tapping the DPA in June, as did a joint government-industry “tiger team.”
So too did some Democrats in Congress, proposing $2.1-billion to boost production of transformers and associated grid equipment, which they argue is crucial to realizing the recent Inflation Reduction Act’s potential to accelerate renewable power generation. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island put it in an interview with IEEE Spectrum last week: “To move the electrons in which the [IRA] invests, we need a lot of electrical equipment manufactured, including transformers.”
In the end, lobbyists say the proposed DPA funds were simply edged out by other priorities. For now that leaves utilities to create their own solutions.
One North Carolina distribution operator certainly did after this month’s Duke Energy attack. The morning after, crews from Asheboro-based Randolph Electric Membership Coop and neighboring utilities were building tie-lines to unaffected substations, and the next evening enough power was flowing over three kilometers of upgraded and new lines to serve several thousand customers on a rolling basis, restoring access to gasoline, groceries and other services.
A Little Help from Friends
Creativity and bravery has certainly been on display by grid engineers in Ukraine, who cobble and piece together whatever parts they can to restore power knocked out by each Russian barrage. Last Friday’s had cut power deliveries by over half when the engineers set to work—despite Ukrainian air defenses downing 60 of the 80-90 missiles fired. The next day President Zelenskyy said grid operators already had power flowing again to almost 6 million people.
Of course, there was much more work ahead. ”There is still a lot of work to do to stabilize the system. There are problems with the supply of heat, there are big problems with the supply of water,” said Zelenskyy.
Several barrages since the weekend have inflicted yet more damage.
One hopeful sign amidst Russia’s pummeling of civilian infrastructure is a recent uptick in replacement parts delivered from abroad. DTEK, an energy conglomerate that distributes most of eastern Ukraine’s power, received its first infusion of equipment last week, including 36 transformers from Zurich-based equipment supplier Hitachi Energy.
Other distributors are benefitting from 250 transformers donated by Lithuanian power and gas distributor ESO that arrived earlier this month.
Ukrenergo, meanwhile, can buy equipment for its transmission grid thanks to more than Euro-400-million in loans and grants from European governments last week.
More good news comes from Ukrainian assessments of another dwindling supply: Russia’s stockpile of missiles. The National Security and Defense Council estimates that Russia has enough arms left for “at most two or three, maybe four more” of its mass strikes.
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Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.