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Why Have Lessons Learned Not Been Transferred to the Current Generation of Power System Engineers, Managers and Policy Makers and What Can Be Done About It?


Jack Casazza, President, American Education Institute
Frank Delea, Consultant, American Education Institute


There has been increasing recognition of the failure of the electric power engineering profession to transfer knowledge and experience gained in the past to succeeding generations. The August 14, 2003, blackout was, as Yogi Berra says 'deja-vu all over again.' As has been stated many times in the past, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its errors. This failure to transfer knowledge was a significant contributor to the August 14, 2003 blackout, and has been an important contributor to the establishment of much poor and some bad electric power policy by our government. It has been a major contributor to the decline of the engineering profession from a leadership role to the role of technicians required to follow policies and courses of actions set by non-technical officials and executives.

What kind of knowledge and experience should have been transferred? What was the cause of the failure to transfer past experience? Who were the people, or players, or organizations involved? How can these past errors be prevented from being repeated in the future? It is the purpose of this paper to explore these questions.

In the 12-year period between 1965 and 1977 there were three major blackouts affecting the Eastern United States1 and a major blackout that shut-down all of France, an outage in scope close to the size of the August 14, 2003 interruption. (The authors were involved in investigations of these blackouts and in the reports that were written giving causes and required corrective actions.) The review of the 1965 and 1967 blackouts led to the realization that regional coordination of planning and operations was required. This effort was lead by two industry organizations, the Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) System Planning Committee and the North American Power Systems Interconnection Committee (NAPSIC), and resulted in the establishment of nine regional reliability councils, each having reliability criteria for the planning and operation of the grid in their region. Compliance with the criteria was based on peer review with some oversight by state regulators. The process worked because the utilities involved did not look upon one another as competitors. In some regions, compliance was obtained by the threat of releasing reports covering cases of non-compliance with criteria. Subsequently, NERC was formed to provide coordination between the nine Reliability Councils.

Other lessons were learned from reviews of prior blackouts such as: the need to make certain that relay settings and transmission line ratings are consistent and communicated to operating personnel (Northeast blackout 1965), the need for “black start” capability (Northeast 1965), the vital need for an EMS system to analyze potential problems (PJM 1967), the need for improved system restoration procedures (Northeast 1965, PJM 1967, Con Edison 1977), the need for adequate communication within and between control areas (Con Edison 1977), the need for adequate reactive supply (VARs) from generation as the load increased in the morning, (France 1978), and the need to make certain line clearances on ROWs are maintained (West Coast 1994, upstate New York 1971)

Following these blackouts, many technical reports and papers were prepared; presentations made at various public and technical committee meetings; and magazine and newspaper stories published; but corrective actions were often limited to the systems directly involved although the weaknesses identified applied to the industry as a whole. Some of the lessons were specifically addressed in reliability council documents, others only by the immediately affected companies in their internal criteria and procedures. Since many of the lessons were technical in nature, there was no widespread public awareness of the issues. In fact, even within companies, the issues were known and understood by only a few technical specialists and their technical managers.

As noted in NERC’s February 2004 report “NERC Actions to Prevent and Mitigate the Impacts of Future Cascading Blackouts” many of the lessons learned from prior blackouts were forgotten, ignored or never known. The November 2003 “Interim Report of the US – Canada Power System Outage Task Force” on the August 14, 2003 blackout did not show any awareness of the major PJM 1967 blackout. There is other clear evidence that information from previous blackouts and near blackouts is not known, e.g., recently there were two instances where comments were made about “rapid restoration of customers”, a.) an article in the IEEE Spectrum which discussed the achievements in Italy for rapid restoration of the power system after the recent Italian blackout; b.) comments by the head of the US Dept. of Energy Office of Transmission and Distribution that the restoration after August 14 in about 2 days was a remarkable achievement. There was no recognition in either case that following the blackout of all of France in 1978, about 40,000 megawatts, the entire system was restored in four hours! Understanding how and why the French restoration was achieved in four hours is important knowledge. The French system had been designed so a significant number of generators would remain rotating at synchronous speeds on their own auxiliary loads. This fact points out that there needs to be a much greater consideration of the design of our systems and equipment and how past designs have worked.

Historically technical knowledge transfer was done in a number of ways:

  • Within companies, by training of young engineers by older more experienced ones
  • Educational programs at universities
  • By professional organizations such as the IEEE, CIGRE, EEI, APPA, NRECA, etc. though their meetings/conferences, educational courses, and papers and articles
  • By the technical press such as Electrical World, Electric Light and Power, and T&D magazines
  • By continuing education programs, usually offered by consultants

As a result of a number of developments in the 1970s2, lead times for generation and transmission additions increased significantly, load growth dropped to almost zero for a few years and the costs of money for the utilities became a severe problem leading to rapidly rising construction costs and inadequate revenue. These factors caused extensive delays in service dates for installations in progress and an almost complete halt in generation and transmission facilities being added to power systems. As a result of this 10 to 15 year hiatus, the need for engineers in the utilities and the equipment manufactures sharply declined. Many of our major equipment manufacturers went out of business or ceased manufacturing of most power equipment. Experienced engineers were often offered attractive early retirement packages and decided to accept them. As older engineers retired younger engineers were not hired to work alongside them as in the past in “doctor-intern” relationships and therefore a great deal of hands-on acquired knowledge was not passed on.

Our universities have obviously played a key role since they provide the basic knowledge to future generations of engineers. Since jobs for engineers were few and far between, older power system professors were retiring, and many professors with power backgrounds transferred to other assignments. As a result power system education changed its focus. One of the authors served on the “visiting committee” appointed to review the functioning the Electrical Engineering Department at a university that had played a leading role for many years in power system education. This university was completely reorienting its curricula from a major emphasis on power engineering to a focus on solid-state physics and computer technology. Engineering economic courses were being dropped. Power system and equipment design courses were replaced with courses involving sophisticated mathematical optimizing and modeling techniques oriented more to individuals seeking advanced degrees and employment in research or teaching positions. Professors with power backgrounds were retiring and not being replaced.

Like any other business, a university must respond to the interests of its prospective students. A majority of students were concerned with the kind of jobs they would get and the nature of their compensation. A significant percentage of the best engineers went to work for financial institutions where their mathematical skills were used in evaluating risk management and business opportunities. Other engineers often found well-paid jobs at which they functioned as technicians. This is true not only in the electric power industry, but other branches of the electric industry.

Over time this situation has worsened. Present university faculties, with a few exceptions, have had little practical hands-on experience in a power system design or operation. They have not had the responsibility for managing design organizations. They have not had the responsibility for planning with the consequent experience of reviewing one’s plans to see which were good, which were bad, and how they could be improved. They have not been involved with the physical operation of the equipment, learning its idiosyncrasies and problems.

Organizations such as the IEEE, CIGRE, EEI, APPA, EPRI, became heavily focused on implementing market forces rather than on system operation and design. The older engineers who saw this happening obviously bear some responsibility. The IEEE has considerably evolved in the past 35 years; from an organization in which the majority of its members were involved in actual utility system or equipment work to an organization heavily dominated by university faculty. More and more IEEE papers and presentations became oriented to new methods for helping the market function, new methods for minimizing risks, new control methods and new methods for pricing transmission. The EEI, which provided at one time a key means of conveying experience through its technical committees, ceased being a means for transferring technical information and became a lobbying organization. It was thought that its technical activities would be taken over by EPRI and NERC, which has not happened. Under severe budgetary pressures, EPRI has focused in recent years on ways to increase it revenue rather the transfer of knowledge. The main emphasis of NERC’s training programs has been on NERC procedures, which are heavily oriented towards the market. In the past, NERC has not organized educational programs where older engineers with extensive experience could pass on their knowledge to the younger generation.

Last, but not least, there are some basic biases against age and experience. Many in the younger generation believe that any knowledge that is more than 10 years old is useless. Many believe that the advice of an older generation is designed to keep a “status quo” with which they are familiar rather than pass on experience.

Besides the impact on blackouts as discussed earlier, the loss of institutional memory also has impacted today’s electric system and the restructuring of the wholesale market structure as envisioned by FERC. It has done so in a number of ways:

  • Decisions to deregulate and to establish wholesale energy markets were made without review by experienced engineers of the potential effect of new regulations on system design and operation. Many managers no longer had a good understanding of the effects of potential decisions.
  • The emphasis on profits caused utilities to make significant reductions in staff to reduce costs further impacting the transferal of technical knowledge. .
  • Peer pressure as a means to ensure compliance with reliability criteria was no longer sufficient.
  • As companies changed their priorities from reliability and lowering costs to making larger profits, the role of engineers in setting company power system policy declined. For several generations the top executives of the utilities and equipment manufacturers had been engineers intimately familiar with the technical requirements of their businesses. With deregulation and restructuring, individuals with financial, legal and marketing backgrounds were appointed as the senior officers of many companies, often in charge of technical activities.
  • Appointments to key industry committees and advisory boards were based on nominations from “stakeholders” whose concern was profits, personal power and political interest. Technical policy decisions formerly based on technical and economic analyses shifted to being determined by political consensus.
  • The key electric energy policy advisors of government and business became economists, lawyers, and university faculty members.
  • Few key appointments to regulatory bodies have technical backgrounds.

How can changes to improve the transfer of past knowledge be achieved?

  • Engineers who are in or who have retired from the electric power industry should seek to become affiliated with colleges and universities, either as full-time professors or as adjunct professors to pass on their knowledge. Two excellent examples of where this has been done are Anjan Bose at Washington State and Bruce Wollenberg at the University of Minnesota. Part time affiliations were tried successfully at Lehigh University. In Denmark, the head of planning in a Danish utility was also a member of the faculty at the local university, splitting his time between the two organizations.
  • Working engineers should actively support student electrical power engineering organizations on campus such as the local IEEE chapter.
  • The industry should provide financial support by direct contributions to the desired programs and by providing attractive compensation to its graduates. A good example is the relationship between the industry and the program run for many years by Prof Eric Gross at RPI. Dr. Gross was an experienced power system engineer who had spent many years in industry.
  • Working engineers should be encouraged by their companies to take continuing education programs under which the knowledge can be passed on by organizations such the American Education Institute (AEI).3
  • Companies should investigate the potential for co-op programs where students work part-time and study part-time in situations where they can learn from engineers working in the field.
  • Colleges and universities should review engineering curricula to ensure that there is least one required course where ethics is discussed and demonstrated by past problems. This has become a standard practice at many elite business schools. A course on engineering economics should also be required.
  • The IEEE has to become more of a spokesperson for and defender of the profession; for its technical competence, for its leadership role and for its ethical behavior.
  • The IEEE has to effectively implement its procedures whereby it can assist employees to flag harmful policies or procedures; either technical or business, and to keep them safe from retribution.
  • The IEEE should spearhead an effort to educate its members about past abuses that occurred in the industry. Much information is available about the abuses that took place and the steps that were taken to control them, but discussion of them is largely ignored. As a result, engineers today are participating in developments that are recreating many of the past abuses.

We engineers need to reassert our role in the electric power industry. The authors believe our recommendations will provide a stepping stone to that end. We urge the Institute and its members to consider and act on them.

1 The great Northeast blackout of 1965, the PJM blackout of 1967 and the Con Edison blackout of 1977.

2 Examples are the oil embargos, the 3 Mile Island incident, environmental laws and regulations, major recessions in the early mid 1970s and then again in the late 1970s.

3 AEI, a not for profit organization, founded in 1994 for this purpose at the suggestion of Joseph Swidler, former Chairman of the Federal Power Commission. AEI has a number of educational programs shown on its joint web page with the IEEE (www.ameredinst.org).

Readers Comments

Date Comment
Nancy Robb

This article covers most of the concerns I have had over the years about the knowledge loss in the electrical utility industry. I would add two more: 1. The planning horizons for an electrical utility should be 20-50 years out. However, financial decision makers in IOUs look for short term gains in stock prices. I work in Public Power. The problem may not be quite as bad as in the private sector, except that political pressures to keep rates low interrupt replacement and refurbishment programs that keep electrical utilities healthy. 2. This is a fascinating industry. We do not promote power engineering in schools, so students understandably perceive the industry as stodgy and uninteresting. We lose good engineers to the lure of electronic and other new technologies.


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