US homes under threat due to unpredictable power surges and quality issues - Hindustan Times
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US homes under threat due to unpredictable power surges and quality issues

Feb 21, 2024 10:36 AM IST

America's electric grids face a hidden danger- dangerous power quality. Unnoticed by many, sudden voltage surges pose a serious threat, leading to home fires.

A former firefighter, was barefoot when he noticed flames engulfing a nearby home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Rushing to help, he smashed a window and entered the house, ensuring the safety of a teenage boy who had escaped with minor burns.

Poor power quality is the silent killer of homes and businesses. (Photo by Luca Sola / AFP)(AFP)
Poor power quality is the silent killer of homes and businesses. (Photo by Luca Sola / AFP)(AFP)

Although it's a made-up story, but what the former firefighter encountered highlights a growing concern in the United States — dangerous power quality. While stable power quality ensures a consistent flow of electricity, sudden surges or sags can lead to disastrous consequences, often unnoticed by homeowners.

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In Waltham, a fire at the Alonge family's historic home was traced back to an electric substation dealing with a rodent infestation. Such incidents are rarely identified as connected to voltage surges due to a lack of technology and reporting mechanisms, making the issue more ominous.

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Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff emphasizes the broader implications, stating, “Waltham is a horrific example of what bad power quality can do. The same thing could happen in Chicago or Houston or San Francisco.”

The looming crisis in US' electric grids

The stress on the nation's electric grids is rapidly worsening, exacerbated by increasing demand, ageing infrastructure, and the transition to renewable energy. The lack of tracking mechanisms for power quality concerns is evident, with utilities struggling to address the problem.

The consequences extend beyond immediate safety risks. Power quality issues contribute to home fires, causing an average of 46,700 incidents annually in 2015-2019, leading to $1.5 billion in property damage, 390 civilian deaths, and over 1,300 injuries.

Whisker Labs Inc., utilizing smart-home sensor technology, plays a crucial role in monitoring power quality.

The company's CEO, Bob Marshall, explains, “How do utilities not know how their grid performs and how resilient the grid is? Obviously, there are gigantic consequences to a grid that lacks resiliency.”

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Voltage surges threaten homes

The situation is poised to worsen with the rise of electric vehicles and the migration to full electrification. Marshall estimates that about 1% of homes currently have dangerous power quality problems, representing potential fire hazards.

Despite these challenges, utilities traditionally focus on power-outage metrics, neglecting the overall impact on households from voltage surges. The lack of large-scale energy storage further complicates the balance between supply and demand.

Federal agencies and power industry groups warn of the urgent need to address power quality issues, with potential national costs reaching hundreds of millions of dollars.

While efforts are underway to improve grid resilience, the delicate balance involves passing on upgrade costs to consumers, who already face challenges with rising energy costs.

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