Schnabel Cars: Another Reason Large-Power Transformers Are The Weakest Link In The Bulk Power Grid

May 5 2014, 11:40am CDT | by

The bulk power grid in the United States encompasses over 360,000 miles of transmission lines connecting more than 6,000 power plants with local distribution networks that feed power to end users. The transmission grid has an estimated value of about $1 trillion.

The entire juggernaut relies on a small number of large-power transformers (LPTs), which are also needed at every point where there is a change in voltage in power transmission to step the voltage either up or down.

LPTs are heavily-customized, made-to-order pieces of capital equipment.

“LPTs are usually neither interchangeable with each other nor produced for extensive spare inventories,” as an analysis by the U.S. Department of Commerce concluded.

Roughly 1.3 transformers are produced for each transformer design, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

There is no inventory of LPTs ready to replace units that fail in the field.

“Failure of a single unit could result in temporary service interruption and considerable revenue loss, as well as incur replacement and other collateral costs. Should several of these units fail catastrophically, it will be challenging to replace them.”

In 2010, the average estimated costs of an LPT ranged from $2 to $7.5 million without transportation and installation costs. The latter costs account for roughly one third of an LPTs’ total cost. And for good reason.

LPTs commonly weigh more 400 tons, or roughly the weight of 400 cars stacked on top of each other, and must be transported over long distances.

The logistics involved are extremely complicated and expensive. The first thing you need is a Schnabel car, a specialized railroad freight used to transport extremely tall and heavy loads via railways.

A Schnabel car suspends heavy and oversized loads with lifting arms between two ends of the car. The lifting arms are connected to an assembly of pivots and frames that distribute the weight of the load and the lifting arm over a large number of wheels.

There are only about 30 Schnabel cars in North America and they travel only about 10 miles per hour at top speed.

Road logistics are, if anything, more daunting than railway logistics. Transporting an LPT by road requires obtaining special permits and routes from the department of transportation of each state on the route. Bridges need to be checked, traffic lights removed and replaced and so on and so forth.


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