Tech Insights

Preventing a Dangerous Domino Effect in Europe’s Power Grid

November 27, 2023 by Ellie Gabel

European researchers determined causes and warning signs for power outages that could lead to widespread blackouts. They recommended strategies for anticipating problems and addressing them.

Researchers have recently warned how vulnerabilities in the European power grid could cause a domino effect leading to large-scale blackouts. However, they also pose actionable solutions to reduce the likelihood and help engineers achieve resilience. 


A grid failure in Europe could cause cascading blackouts.

A grid failure in Europe could cause cascading blackouts. Image used courtesy of NASA


Focusing on Cascading Blackouts

Based at Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, the team examined relatively minor power disruptions that cause domino-like effects because the electricity grid is not sufficiently distributed. The researchers pointed out that the possibility for cascading events to affect the grid always exists. However, spacing out grid assets so they don’t affect each other so severely is a practical solution for reducing blackouts. 

The researchers examined 14,557 power disruptions in Italy over ten years and 478 more blackouts elsewhere in Europe over three decades. They were particularly interested in cascading blackouts, which occur due to the complex and interconnected nature of grid assets. 

Engineers must handle more problems than just single failures. These situations introduce numerous challenges, such as finding enough workers to investigate and resolve all the issues. 

The data identified cascading blackouts as the top cause of power outages on the continent. The findings also revealed such events represent 91% of power losses and 89% of recovery time spent. 


Blackout events and causes.

Blackout events and causes. Image used courtesy of Joule

When the team examined the Italian data, they identified an important link between power grid demand and wind speeds. Power failures became more likely when demand was 80% of the grid’s capacity and winds were about 31 mph. The researchers suggested capacity and wind speed measurements could be warning systems to prevent outages. 

This study also confirmed that weather is the most common cause of cascading events because they often harm grid assets. Severe weather accounted for 32% of cascading events in Europe and 46% in Italy. 

Additionally, blackouts caused by volatile grid conditions are even more damaging. Human error can also result in power outages, although such cases happen less often than those caused by inclement weather.

As grid operators decide which issues to fix and when, they typically handle the ones causing the biggest impacts first. However, the researchers’ work showed it may be time to take a different approach. The statistics indicated that low-impact events account for 81% of the recovery time for national power outages and 62% of the time required to recover from continental-scale outages. 

The research also highlighted the importance of resolving outages as quickly as possible. It indicated fixing the issues within 13 hours could reduce the associated power loss by 52%. Although not covered in this study’s scope, some grid operators have begun investing in Internet of Things sensors that give real-time notifications of failures. This lets decision-makers immediately start dispatching crews to check and fix the problem. 


Answering 5 Critical Questions and Identifying Actions

While studying the data about the Italian and European blackouts, five questions shaped their work: 

  • How do cascading failures affect the power infrastructure?
  • What are the main reasons components fail?
  • Does the current recovery process have shortcomings?
  • Is there a link between high electricity demand, strong winds, and system outages?
  • What warning signs impact a power system’s resilience?

Cascading failures are the leading causes of outages, accounting for most of the recovery time. The researchers also learned power lines and substations are the components that fail most often, usually due to severe weather. 

However, a related finding was that component failures occur less frequently among transmission system operators than among other parties, including large industrial consumers or utility companies. The researchers recommended process standardization and knowledge sharing between transmission system operators and other energy professionals to bring improvements that make outages less common and shorten the time required to fix them. 

When the researchers explored how power outage recoveries happen, they found prioritization issues could lengthen the disruptions caused by low-impact failures. Their data analysis from Italy confirmed that system outages are more likely to occur when energy demand and wind speeds are high. Additionally, frequency deviations are generalized warning signs that a power outage may happen soon. 

Changing how power outages are prioritized and installing devices to detect abnormalities shorten disruptions and make the grid more resilient.


The Impacts of Weather and Seasonality

Another takeaway was that weather-related events impacting the European power grid are most problematic during the winter. Two winter blackouts cited in the paper in Turkey and Italy caused power outages for 130 million people. 


Blackouts by season and associated causes.

Blackouts by season and associated causes. Image used courtesy of Joule


In contrast, blackouts caused by grid instability were more common in the spring and autumn. The researchers recommended rigorous training and appropriate operating procedures to mitigate weather and grid instability-related issues. 


Sharing Data Improves Preparedness

One of the researchers’ conclusions was that severe and interconnected blackouts could become less likely if all involved parties shared relevant data and the associated best practices used at their respective facilities. That makes it easier to identify what works well in preventing power outages and find where room for improvement exists. 

The researchers also plan to use the data from this study to build, validate, and calibrate models that show how well the identified preventive measures keep the grid operating smoothly. The associated conclusions will be valuable for the foreseeable future, particularly as many operators increase their investments in renewable energy sources. 

Power engineers must keep things in perspective by remembering this is a single study, albeit an important one. Staying abreast of further developments in this area will lead to well-rounded approaches as they work hard to keep grids working smoothly despite severe weather and other complications.