Physicists Think the Weather Can Trigger Blackouts in an Unexpected Way

Windmills in a storm
Windmills in a storm
Photo: Andreas (Flickr)

Renewable resources are great, but they bring a new element of uncertainty to a power grid. This element can lead to failure in surprising ways, according to a new paper.

A team of researchers built a model of power grids that transport electricity from solar and wind power. That means that there are places where the grid receives fluctuating inputs of power, since levels of sunlight and wind and vary.

You might think that a power grid failure would be the result of a single windstorm or thunderstorm at one node. But that’s not the case, based on the researchers’ model, which uses the tools of statistical physics, a field whose math describes lots of interacting and randomly moving pieces. They found that small, unusual fluctuations combined over the entire network were more likely to take the power lines down, according to the paper published in Physical Review Letters. 


The model was also able to predict where a line would fail and how the failure would propagate, given information about the grid and the weather. The researchers compared their model to actual data from the German transmission grid, which gets about 33% of its power from renewable sources, and things seemed to line up.

Being a model, there are some assumptions built in that might not correspond to the real world. But perhaps these are the types of things that must be taken into account when designing a power grid that relies in part on the ever-temperamental weather.


Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds

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This is one of the two reasons being given to AZ voters to oppose the clean energy initiative that should make the November ballot (utilities are already on a media blitz against it, and petitions haven’t even been turned in yet). They claim it would increase reliance on coal and other fossil fuels because it would force shutdown of Palo Verde nuclear, since allegedly it wouldn’t be able to respond quickly enough to changes in demand cause by natural fluctuations in renewable output. Though, in reality, they’ve realized that instead of stats and reason, it’s easier to fearmonger the uneducated AZ masses into opposing it because it’s a California billionaire backing the issue.