Without warning, the lights in the tunnel go out, the hauling engine stops juddering, the drone of the ventilation fan falls silent. The cage elevators – the lifeline between the depths and daylight – suddenly stop. Darkness and silence. Nothing moves.
A power cut. Deep underground, in the coal mine at the edge of the eastern Indian town of Burdwan, around 22 miners are trapped. They are rescued a few hours later, returning from the blackness to a country in darkness. Not only the mine had been brought to a standstill.
On 31 July 2012, India experienced the biggest blackout in world history when the country's hopelessly overloaded electricity grid collapsed. Over 600 million people were without electricity for 24 hours. The plug was pulled on half a continent, and the infrastructure could not cope. No water came out of the wells; trains stopped dead in the middle of their journeys. The Internet, radio, television – all out of service.
In the capital, New Delhi, people stood helplessly at gas pumps, supermarket tills and ATMs that simply did not work. The traffic lights stopped working; the subway system was evacuated. Traffic, business, everyday life... everything just stopped.
We only notice how dependent we are on electricity when it is suddenly gone.
Sometimes more, sometimes less electricity
The mega blackout in India was certainly unusual, but it was not a one-off. Large-scale power cuts happen again and again, all over the world. The causes are many and varied: poorly maintained power plants and electricity cables, human error, natural disasters, hacker attacks.
Now there is a new risk factor for blackouts: the worldwide boom in renewable energies. If they had not done so before, the damage to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima in 2011 caused many countries to demand a switch to regenerative energies – with China, the USA, Germany and Japan leading the way. Every continent is seeing research and heavy investment into solar parks, onshore and offshore wind farms, biomass and hydraulic power plants.
According to the International Energy Agency, around half of all new power plants built by 2035 will use regenerative energy sources. The share of global energy generation accounted for by green energy will rise from 18 per cent today to 25 per cent.
“This development is good in terms of climate protection, but it carries risks for the reliability of supply,” says Bruno Kuckartz, Head of the Energy Systems Division at TÜV Rheinland.
Especially when it is paired with the gradual shutdown of coal, gas and nuclear power stations, as is the case in Germany, for example. If none of these power stations are available to cover the baseload, the natural fluctuations in the electricity produced in wind and solar systems become a problem. If the demand for electricity is greater than the supply – for example at midday in summer, when a lot of air conditioning systems are in operation – the frequency in the grid falls, in extreme cases causing a blackout.
Scaremongering? Absolutely not. Grid operators already have to intervene manually in the increasingly complex tapestry of large and small energy generators, electricity lines and energy consumers more and more often. But controlling local and transnational electricity flows manually like this is a dangerous game. Pressing the wrong button at the wrong time could cause a blackout for entire cities or regions.
Enough wild expermentation
New solutions are needed. TÜV Rheinland recently founded its specialist “Network Security and Automation” department. “We test web-based programs for plant and network monitoring at the medium-voltage level, for example. The idea behind the software is for it to automatically control which power plant feeds electricity into the network when, more reliably than any human could,” says Bruno Kuckartz.
“We also need new electricity superhighways to connect offshore wind parks with cities and industrial centers,” he adds. But stable networks are useless without safe and reliable power plants. A few areas, such as bioenergy, are still causing concern here.
“There was a lot of wild experimentation going on in the early 1990s,” says Erik Holzhauser, TÜV Rheinland's expert for biomass power plants. “Every farmer was building his own biogas plant and putting it next to his field.”
"Everything that is tested is also regularly maintained."
It initially took time to build up this safety expertise. Now Erik Holzhauser and his colleagues are kept very busy testing both new power plants and older, existing ones.
“Everything that is tested is also regularly maintained – that ensures a reliable supply,” says Holzhauser. TÜV Rheinland expert Bruno Kuckartz adds, “in alternative energy generation in particular, there is a constant stream of technical innovations and statutory changes, all with consequences for planning, construction and operation.”
Before a wind turbine can begin to turn, for example, there are many tasks that have to be completed time and again. “It is often difficult for investors, manufacturers and plant operators to keep up with it all. With our help, they can go back to concentrating on their core business,” says Kuckartz.
TÜV Rheinland has brought together its expertise in the field of energy under the motto 'E3 – Energy Expertise Everywhere’. The website tuv-e3.com uses an interactive world map with practical examples from across the globe to provide fast access to the services, clearly divided into the different fields of energy: oil & gas; fossil & nuclear; solar; wind; smart energy; and energy efficiency. The map shows the energy projects TÜV Rheinland is involved in around the world, but it also provides proof that every country follows its own path when it comes to generating energy.
In the Indian state of Rajasthan, for example, the world's largest solar power station by some margin is being built with a planned capacity of 4,000 megawatts – equal to that of three large nuclear power plants. At the same time, the construction of around 455 coal power plants with a capacity of around 520,000 megawatts is planned over the next few years. Better safe than sorry.
For more information on our Plants and Machinery Testing solutions, please visit our website or contact us to speak to one of our experts.