ers present challenges in the factories
where they are made and to the utility
companies that buy them. Each grid
transformer is the size of a small house
and weighs several hundred tons.
They have almost no moving parts,
require little maintenance, and typi-
cally operate for decades.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Because the grid has never been
“standardized,” each big transformer
has to meet the electric current and
voltage characteristics where it is to
be installed. Engineers also must take
into account distances the power is to
travel and resistance factors such as the
diameter of transmission wires.
This means several months of cus-
tom specification and design followed
by weeks of detailed mechanical and
Moving big transformers requires
barges, special railroad cars, and cus-
tom over-the-road transporters that
take up two highway lanes.
Experts in industry and government
estimate that the U.S. portion of the
North American grid has between 1,500
and 1,800 big transformers; definitions
vary so the count is not certain.
Officials at the Electric Power Re-
search Institute said the organization
had no solid figures.
Inconsistent definitions and missing
data aside, industry and government
experts agree that 90 to 95 percent of
the grid’s new and replacement transformers have been imported in any
Government officials and many in
industry saw the grid’s huge depen-
dence on imports as an Achilles heel for
the U.S. economy. Many of the experts
also agreed that hundreds of big grid
transformers need to be replaced.
Some industry experts have calculated that as many as 400 to 600 of the
grid’s aging transformers should be
replaced each year for the next several
years. Making one estimate was SPX
Corp. in a September 2012 investor
presentation, which the Department of
Energy quoted in its report on power
transformers. SPX estimated the grid
transformer business at $1 billion a year
and added that replacements should go
on for several years. Meanwhile, government data valued the 469 transformers
imported in 2013 at $676 million.
Aside from the need to replace aging equipment, the grid is growing.
It is connecting new power plants
(fossil-fueled and nuclear) and new
renewables (solar and wind). And it is
evolving technologically to boost both
resilience and reliability.
In the wake of the September 11
attacks, the grid’s heavy reliance on imported equipment was seen as vulnerability. Three federal agencies got involved—the Department of Homeland
Security, the U.S. International Trade
Commission, and the Department of
In the aftermath of 9/11, Homeland
Security was asked for help by the
utility companies, to demonstrate how
quickly even the biggest transformers could be replaced in an emergency
The department’s Science and
Technology unit coordinated a program
that developed a backstop transformer
dubbed RecX—“Rec” for “recovery”
and “X” from the standard shorthand
for a transformer.
The RecX project focused on transportation and speedy installation of a
modularized grid transformer rather
than grid standardization. The Electric Power Research Institute in Palo
Alto, Calif., which has been working on
standardization and better transformer
designs since the early 1990s, took on
this work as well and subcontracted the
Intermountain Rigging and HeavyHaul
moving a 560,000-pound power
transformer in Tulsa on a 24-axle
Image: Intermountain Rigging and HeavyHaul