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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 spokeswoman.

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 news release.

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 major blackout.

Experts agree that better coordination of grid operators has reduced the potential for blackouts.

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 else."

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 has decreased.

"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 lines.

"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 problems.

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 said.

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 dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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