Saturday, October 10, 2009


Want to see a transformer fire? Go to:

Until I saw this, I had thought of a transformer fire in terms of an electrical fire, a dancing sheet of blue light maybe. I thought transformers were surrounded with cyclone fence and barbed wire to keep people from getting electrocuted. I had not known that huge amounts of oil are used to insulate the actual electrical workings.

A transformer is basically an ignition system inside a flammable oil tank. It’s necessary whenever high tension/high voltage electricity is “stepped down” to be used by households, so there will be one for every town or maybe neighborhood. In cities they are sometimes in concrete vaults underground, maybe under the street.

I don’t know whether this fire is like the one that destroyed Valier’s transformer. The Northwestern rep did say that it was necessary to rebuild the platform, which is basically a slab of concrete. As I read along a little farther I begin to understand why you don’t want one next door to you and why Northwestern Energy is so nervous about the subject.

The claim is that there is a transformer fire DAILY somewhere, giving rise to websites like the one below, which wants the mineral oil to at least be replaced by something “greener.” since even if the fire is put out (there are numerous systems for that), the neighborhood can be swamped with oil.

Here on the high prairie our best safety feature is simply space, so a town’s transformer is likely to be just over the hill, away from buildings. The biggest threat to transformers is age, which gradually degrades the insulation that separates the oil from the electrical workings, but several hazards are especially present on the high prairie: temperature extremes, big birds who can bridge two electrical points, and lightning.

Scott Patera is the Northwestern Energy manager for the Great Falls area, working out of Butte. He spent the day before yesterday going from one merchant to another, explaining what was happening and what to expect. The young folks on the phone bank were not in touch with him and didn’t know where he was, so he didn’t call me until yesterday. He sounded exhausted.

He said: “This situation in Valier is this - at the Valier Substation (which is on the Williams road) the transformer in that sob [not the usual meaning of S.O.B.!] burned up.

“It is a major type transformer that utilities do not carry in inventory. It caused equipment poles and special type wire to be destroyed. We are working on the sub, and we flew down to the manufacturer for the transformer.

“The sub is being rebuilt but will take time to get everything in from manufacturers. In the meantime we have had to bring power from the Conrad sub. This is causing you to feel any problem they may have and the three-phase line that crosses from Conrad to Valier is subject to weather and various problems that it is not normally required to do.

“We ask that if you see a brown-out situation to turn equipment off and get protection devices on any sensitive equipment that may require protection.

“If you have a claim - please document the time and what happened along with what was damaged and turn the claim in to: Bob Vinson, PO box 589, Great Falls, MT 59403.

“This situation will take us some time to get completed - probably the first week in November.“

Claims in some instances, as when industries or cities are involved, claims have run into very high dollar amounts, millions. Sometimes it’s necessary to evacuate thousands of people. The happy side is that all this replacing will improve the Gross National Product, showing up as sales.

Residents of Valier have known for a long time that we often have brown-outs, which is when power is reduced enough to dim lightbulbs and make motors grind ineffectively. I notice that my last bill had a little lecture in it about “power vampires” and how all these appliances, that keep a red dot glowing in the dark even when presumably nothing is using power, should be put on power strips that can be turned off when the appliance is out of use. That means that all the settings on the TV and microwave and all the little digital clocks will have to be reset for every use. The clever PR people are presenting this practice as a way of saving yourself money on your electrical bill, but in fact they would protect us from brownouts, peaks and surges, valleys and draw-downs, and outright breaks in power. That WOULD save money. The salesmen of power-stream protections will soon be visiting, since many people here already have generators, wood stoves, and gas heat which is relatively dependable since it's underground.

In the past when I’ve asked exactly what was going on in the “power grid,” I’ve been brushed off with vague references to the “third leg” or fancy engineer talk I couldn’t follow. When I began to google for info, I discovered that it was the U.S. Department of Energy, no less, that had the clear explanations I wanted and that I was tapping into a vast body of knowledge, recommended reforms, and suggested practices. The third leg deal is that electricity travels in waves. Ideally, the “juice” is sent out in three overlapping streams, like singing a choral round, so that one of the three is always at the top of the wave. If something goes wrong, that breaks down and the electricity becomes “dirty,” that is, turbulent, very hard on modern gizmos.

Another hazard for Valier on the sparsely-populated high prairie is simply that we are out on the edges and boundaries. The librarian’s home is on a different electrical provider, which is not involved. Why isn’t it? No reciprocity? Politicians are less interested in wasting their “energy” intervening on our behalf because we can deliver fewer votes. The kind of pressure that arises from human damage is not so likely here -- we just lost some business hours and some small appliances. No one killed or burned.

But the biggest hazard is our own blissful ignorance. When we find ourselves inconvenienced, we react like high-schoolers denied the use of the car. Adults somewhere must be at fault and we resent them, but we aren’t very interested in how it all works -- or doesn’t. Like financial markets, power companies have slipped out from under regulation and made risky bets. I’m barely beginning to understand power grids and alternatives. The environmental listservs never mention them except in terms of sources. Mostly people just want “more.” And cheaper.

In the end, I’d love to have my own power source, to be “off the grid,” with photovoltaic panels on the roof or a backyard windmill or even a bicycle-powered generator in the garage. In the meantime, when I get up in the night, all those little red dots around the rooms are missing. I notice that many of the big yard lights that use to spoil my view of the stars are also missing. It’s not all bad news.

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