Increased cooperation may help curb massive blackouts
Aug 21, 2006 - David Templeton
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Three years after 50 million people
were left in the dark, Pennsylvania's power grid
operator, which prevented outages from affecting
most of Pennsylvania in August 2003, has taken action
to prevent future electricity blackouts.
PJM Interconnection, the Valley Forge,
Montgomery County, company that operates the power
grid in 13 states including most of Pennsylvania,
has signed agreements to share information with
neighboring grid operators, including the Midwest
Independent Service Operator, to help reduce the
chance of blackouts.
"Given the record demand for energy
recently and how we met that demand, I think we're
doing it well," said Paula DuPont-Kidd, PJM Interconnection
Michael Kormos, PJM's senior vice
president of reliability services, said the company
has signed agreements with grid operators to share
information and force all parties to take preventive
action, or err on the side of caution, if there
are disparities in readings.
In short, if one set of numbers indicates
a problem, both operators must take preventive action.
"We check their system, and they check
ours, and we have an agreement to go with the more
conservative numbers," Mr. Kormos said.
Chances of a blackout?
"Rare," he said.
Improvements in power-grid coordination
became apparent this summer when two record weeks
of electricity demand during a three-week period
ending Aug. 5 resulted in no major blackouts.
"Once again the nation's electric
system withstood a severe test," Tom Kuhn, president
of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association
for investor-owned utility companies, said in a
But everyone is not ready to celebrate.
Some officials say the nation still
lacks sufficient upgrades in transmission lines,
sparking debate about the potential for another
Experts agree that better coordination
of grid operators has reduced the potential for
In the wake of the Aug. 14, 2003,
blackout, debate rages over investment in transmission-line
upgrades. Transmission lines are high-voltage power
lines that carry electricity from the power plant
to the utility company that distributes it to customers.
"Not a lot has been done in three
years to make us more secure than we had been,"
said Lester Lave, co-director of Carnegie Mellon
University Electricity Industry Center. "There have
been some improvements on the human side, but nothing
One power-grid gadfly -- who penned
a novel in 2001 predicting the 2003 blackout, but
predicting it would occur in 2004 -- said the grid
cannot handle the effects of 1997 industry deregulation
that allows customers to buy from the lowest-priced
generator. Deregulation entices generators to transmit
electricity greater distances to supply new customers.
Jack Casazza, president of the American
Education Institute, an organization that provides
information about the electricity industry, said
deregulation enticed generators to use transmission
lines in ways they never were intended to be used.
Blackouts still are likely, he said,
and here's why:
Transmission lines are not designed
for a competitive environment.
The number of companies competing
for business has quadrupled, making cooperation
between them less likely, thus raising the specter
of another blackout. He said cooperation, not competition,
is necessary to make service more reliable.
Lawyers rather than electrical engineering
experts set national energy policy, creating a knowledge
void among those overseeing the grid.
Deregulation has shifted industry
emphasis from reliability to profits, forcing a
25 percent reduction in personnel and a 20 percent
cut in maintenance.
"Now, with a focus on profits, there
are fewer people working in electrical power," Mr.
Casazza said. "I feel they cut personnel too much,
and you can't train new people fast enough. They
cannot do the job as competently."
Deregulation, he said, has produced
a double whammy: Power prices are rising while reliability
"It has not benefited us," he said.
But there's no returning to an era
when each region had a power company that generated
power, owned its own transmission lines, then distributed
the power to customers.
"Once the egg is scrambled, you can't
unscramble it," Mr. Casazza said.
For those reasons, he said, the nation
faces the same blackout risk that it did Aug. 14,
2003, when 50 million people were affected after
a falling tree created a blackout in Ohio that cascaded
through seven states.
"No one can tell you, unless it's
a divine source, when there is going to be a major
blackout," Mr. Casazza said. "I've done a lot of
analysis, and with the combination of four or six
events, we face similar risks of what we had before."
Experts generally agree with Mr. Casazza
that the nation's power grid lacks adequate transmission
"There's no question that the transmission
grid has not kept pace with the growth and use of
electricity in the country," said David Cook, vice
president and general counsel for North American
Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.
In the wake of the blackout, the 2005
Energy Policy Act authorized the council, known
as NERC, to set standards for operating the national
grid and enforcing those standards. But Mr. Cook
said NERC is six to eight months away from instituting
a method of enforcing existing standards.
But NERC already has brought some
stability to the power grid by mandating that grid
operators share information, communicate better
and keep electricity flowing smoothly, much in line
with actions PJM Interconnection has undertaken.
"There's no question that the grid
is being used now in ways for which it wasn't really
designed," Mr. Cook said. "It was built to connect
neighbor to neighbor over the last several decades.
It was not designed to move large blocks of power
from one region to another. If we had set out to
do that, it would look different than what we have."
Those physical limitations in transmission
lines mean power generators cannot always transmit
electricity to customers, who then must pay higher
prices. But Mr. Cook said that situation doesn't
put stress on the grid or threaten a blackout.
The national power grid is divided
into three parts. Power plants generate power that
is sent over transmission lines crisscrossing North
America to carry power to distribution networks
including Duquesne Light Co. and Allegheny Power.
As such, the power grid functions
as the world's biggest machine with all phases interconnected
by transmission lines. Physics with some help from
grid operators determines what path the electricity
travels from point A to point B.
Grid operators have ways of raising
or lowering voltage traveling along different lines
to prevent overloads or outages.
Pricing mechanisms that rise with
demand give power generators incentives to boost
production during peak periods.
Mr. Kuhn of the Edison Electric Institute
said utility companies must invest more money to
upgrade and expand transmission lines nationwide,
and improve local distribution lines, to prevent
Countering complaints about a lack
of investment, Jim Owen, Edison Electric Institute
spokesman, said upgrades in transmission lines are
advancing at a faster pace since the blackout, rising
from about $3.5 billion to $6 billion this year.
He said companies also are working
to reduce the risk of outages caused by falling
trees and interference from vegetation.
"The utilities are ramping up investment
in transmission lines to make the system more robust
and resilient," Mr. Owen said.
"But no matter how much you spend
on transmission, there's no ironclad way to absolutely
foreclose on the chance of another outage. But our
job is to do whatever we can to minimize that, and
we're doing our job.
"The system was severely tested in
the last few weeks, and it passed the test," he
Western Pennsylvania holds certain
advantages in electricity production.
"In 1982, the steel industry shut
down," said Dr. Lave of Carnegie Mellon. "That left
Duquesne Light with excess generation capacity and
excess transmission capacity. There's tremendous
excess capacity here and throughout the Ohio Valley."
That transmission line capacity can
help to prevent a blackout.
The blackout was "largely a human
problem -- a matter of not knowing what was going
on in other parts of the system," he said. "Communication
is somewhat better."
But Dr. Lave said $100 billion in
transmission line upgrades still are needed, but
such a large investment is unlikely to occur. Other
improvements in the system are under way, and he
predicted more improvements over the next five years.
Can a blackout occur?" he said. "Absolutely."
First published on August 21, 2006
at 12:00 am
David Templeton can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.