Protecting the National Power Grid
Energy department investigators will require some time in pinpointing exact causes for the largest blackout in U.S. history on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 14. After all, an investigation of a 1996 outage in the western United States that knocked out power to four million customers took two months to complete.
Energy department investigators will require some time in pinpointing exact causes for the largest blackout in U.S. history on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 14. After all, an investigation of a 1996 outage in the western United States that knocked out power to four million customers took two months to complete. August's event put 50 million people in the dark and is estimated by economists to cost $4 billion to $6 billion.
But no matter what the final report, the unprecedented blackout in August will continue to provide fuel for all sides of the electric utility deregulation debate. "At the two ends of the spectrum, you will find those that say it's form, while others say it's the content," said Anthony J. Cirillo, P.E., principal, AE Rosica & Co., Inc. Those who say form argue that power industry deregulation should never have happened. At the other end of the spectrum, the content advocates say that the abundance of power shows that capitalism works and that all controls should be removed. This viewpoint would argue all that needs to happen is that investment in transmission capacity needs to be made more appealing to investors.
No matter where one stands on the deregulation issue, all can agree that deregulation most likely played a part in the event. Since deregulation, certain sections of the Midwest grid have become great crossroads in the transmission of power across the United States.
Now, some analysts are arguing the need for greater government investment in the grid. But all along, one problem with this solution has been that federal and state agencies can be at odds. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission encourages new transmission lines, state regulators are often opposed to greater capacity that sends power out of state.
Other experts argue that there are ways of improving the existing grid. For example, high-temperature superconductors—to build transformers, capacitors and power lines—could reduce loss of electricity. Other technologies include computer switching technology—which is credited with keeping the outage from spreading to Indiana and Chicago—and distributed generation.
Many argue that the wholesale marketing of power under deregulation is beginning to strain the Midwest system, with far-flung purchases of energy overtaxing the grid. In fact, in recent testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, James P. Torgeson, president of the Midwest Independent System Operator, confirmed that his organization could not figure out what was happening just before the blackout. Moreover, the pace of events, he added, made it difficult to respond.
In short, the system and its personnel are being overworked. In fact, several experts feel that only human error can explain the series of events that led to the blackout. Either engineers overestimated system capacity, or operators miscalculated how much power could be moved to other parts of the system when things began to go wrong. Data is already being collected at a nerve center known as Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator. Human error seems to have played a key role in the hour preceding the blackout. Many feel that short-circuited lines should have been manageable.
CSE will be hosting a webcast roundtable in November to explore the outage in detail with a number of noted industry professionals. See adjacent ad for details.