A closer look at the storm that knocked out power to a New Orleans area refinery.

/ / Company News, Technology

Just after 4:00 pm on April 18th, 2020, a lightning strike caused a power failure at Chalmette Refining plant in St. Bernard Parish. Residents of St. Bernard Parish and those in New Orleans neighborhoods reported seeing smoke and smelling a strong chemical odor shortly after, according to a Nola.com story. Luckily, there were no injuries and reports show that there was no immediate danger to residents in the surrounding area. Although this situation didn’t turn out as bad as it potentially could have been, it’s a reminder about just how dangerous lightning can be to businesses and communities as a whole.

The Storm

As storms moved east across the Greater New Orleans area, rain poured down and close to 1,600 lightning strikes were recorded in a 48-hour period. Somewhere around 4:00 pm on April 18th, at least one of those strikes caused a power failure at the refinery. Every circle you see on the map above is a cloud-to-ground lightning strike during that timeframe.

What actually caused the power failure?

It’s impossible to know which exact strike caused the damage to the electrical system. It is possible that an indirect lightning strike in the vicinity of the refinery entered the power system by coupling to utility services and entering through ground current. The rise in voltage could have ultimately damaged electronics and knocked equipment offline. Many of the 15 strikes visible in the close-up map above occurred just before the reported 4:00 pm strike time, and any one of them could be responsible for the failure.

How can facilities like this be protected?

Large industrial facilities like this refinery, traditional businesses, and even residential homes can be protected from lightning events using a two-part system.

  1. Structural Lightning Protection – The structural system consists of a combination of physical lightning terminals (also known as lightning rods) and grounding/bonding techniques. This type of system guards from direct lightning strikes and provides lightning a clear path to ground.
  2. Surge Suppression – Surge protection units protect from indirect strikes and are attached to the structure’s power supply. These units shield electronics from sudden rises in voltage coming from outside the structure. These devices absorb and redirect the electrical energy that comes in from nearby strikes.