ELECTRIC-GRID SECURITYPowering the Nation: How to Fix the Transformer Shortage

Published 7 February 2023

America’s electric grid relies on transformers — electrical components that convert voltage, enabling power distribution to homes and businesses. Disruptions to transformer operations, such as natural disasters, extreme weather, or cyber/physical attacks, cause substantial economic damage. Securing the transformer supply chain is critical to ensure resilience, expand renewable power, and strengthen grid safety. To mitigate potential disruptions, Congress should spur the supply of transformers by investing in domestic transformer manufacturing and workforce development.

The national electric grid forms the bedrock of the American economy, but it suffers from dangerous vulnerabilities. One of them is a shortage of transformers — the voltage-converters critical to electrical transmission and distribution. These shortfalls hamper our national energy policy and the path to building a sustainable grid. Ensuring a robust reserve of transformers is a simple first step to support grid resilience and allow for the buildout of electric infrastructure that would enable cleaner and greener power. In the process, such a stockpile would bolster domestic manufacturing, spur job creation, and strengthen national security. 

Background: What Are Electric Transformers? Why Do They Matter? 
Electric transformers are a critical piece of the national electrical grid. Power stations generate electricity at high voltage, which has more stringent safety requirements than the electricity used every day by households and businesses. Transformers are the equipment that changes, or “steps down,” the voltage level so it can be safely distributed to communities. They range in size from small transformers perched atop electric poles to the 600,000-pound large power transformers (LPTs) found at the 55,000 regional substations in the U.S. Over 90 percent of the electricity consumed in the U.S. passes through LPTs, making them the backbone of the nation’s high-voltage bulk-power system. 

LPT failure or disruption has an outsize impact. Outages leave customers in the dark and constrain the functioning of commerce, schooling, and many other elements of modern American life. Common disruptors include major weather events like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. But that’s not the only threat: The nation has registered at least eight attacks on power substations in four states in recent weeks. The latest occurred on Christmas Day, when four substations in Washington state were attacked. Previous attacks on substations in North Carolina disabled two transformers, with the result that 45,000 customers lost heat and running water for up to three days in the middle of winter. In 2013, a sniper shot and severely damaged 17 LPTs during an isolated assault on a California substation. These high-risk emergencies underline the grid’s vulnerability to sudden and unexpected transformer losses. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation have both warned that transformer failures could inflict a large cost on the nation’s economy, public health, and security interests.