The Future of Electricity
Beyond the blackout
It may be a year before we know what caused the huge power outage last August, but experts agree on steps that could avoid the next blackout
The scramble to do something to prevent another massive power outage like the one that darkened parts of eight northeastern states and Canada began even before all the lights came back on.
After the August 14-15 blackout, newspapers and TV reported story after story about what went wrong and how to fix it.
The problem was that each day different people said different things. A parade of experts blamed everything from outdated switches, to human error, to bad communications.
But two facts stand out.
First, the 2003 blackout was confined to just one region, rather than all of North America. Second, service was restored remarkably quickly. All power resumed within 24 hours.
A lot of things within the transmission system do work right. America’s electricity grid is extremely reliable.
Reliable, but not simple.
Three major interconnected grids serve the United States. The Eastern Interconnection serves areas east of the Rocky Mountains. The Western Interconnection serves the west. Texas has its own grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Within these three areas about 6,000 power plants, owned by nearly 3,000 utilities, provide our electricity.
The split-second decisions and movement of power across the nation are so complex that electric utility leaders said at congressional hearings in September that it could be a full year before they know the specific causes of this year’s blackout.
Nevertheless, Congress is moving quickly toward passage of a new Energy Act, with provisions that may solve some of the problems. Or inadvertently create new ones.
Whatever the precise cause of the blackout, several underlying problems could cause the next interruption to service. That’s why President Bush described the August outage as a wakeup call. Experts agree the nation’s transmission system urgently needs upgrading.
This summer’s blackout gave those experts the chance to say, “I told you so!” Many of them had been issuing warnings for months, and in some cases, years. When those predictions were dusted off and turned into headlines, America’s transmission grid was suddenly portrayed as a shaky relic from a bygone era, ready to fall apart.
Reality, as usual, isn’t quite so sensational or straightforward. Behind the scenes at utilities, specialists organize people and technology to make sure the lights do stay on.
Rick Drury works as the power delivery maintenance manager for East Kentucky Power, the Winchester-based cooperative that generates and transmits electricity to 16 distribution co-ops. He describes keeping the electricity flowing as a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job.
Drury oversees teams of workers in the eastern two-thirds of Kentucky, an area with 350 substations and 2,700 miles of transmission lines. Keeping those lines in good repair requires regular inspection and maintenance.
It’s a task that starts on the ground: keeping right-of-way paths clear of tall vegetation that could interfere with power lines. It takes workers up the transmission towers looking for signs of wear, and even into the air above the wires.
“Three times a year we lease a helicopter to take our teams along every mile to inspect for problems,” says Drury. “We use infrared devices and other tools to spot problems before they cause failures.”
During the last three years Drury’s teams have added other technological improvements to help restore service more quickly after storm or animal damage or even just normal wear and tear.
“We have installed remotely operated switches on our lines,” says Drury. “Instead of sending a person out to the field to search long distances for the problem, we can operate these switches from a control center and use them to open or close smaller sections of our line to pin down where along a stretch of line the problem is. Sometimes we can return substations to service right away and keep only a much smaller damaged section isolated until it can be repaired.”
The focus on reliable service and improved technology has been a cornerstone of the electric utility industry for decades.
In the late 1960s, the industry responded to the first massive blackout in the United States by forming Regional Reliability Councils. The members of these voluntary councils shared information about power plants and transmission lines. They agreed on rules and procedures to move power among themselves and to help each other in times of trouble. The systems they developed worked well to keep electricity flowing.
Kentucky belongs to the nine-state regional council called the East Central Area Reliability Coordination Agreement. Mike Core, president and CEO of Big Rivers Electric Co-op, a generation and transmission co-op based in Henderson, chairs the ECAR Executive Committee. Big Rivers supplies electricity to three distribution co-ops in western Kentucky.
“Many years ago, ECAR and the other regional councils formed a national group, the North American Electric Reliability Council,” says Core. “NERC acted as sort of a clearinghouse for information and a way to bring some standardization to the reliability plans of the regional groups.”
NERC, along with the 10 Regional Reliability Councils, was originally composed of investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, federal power agencies, and electric cooperatives.
That membership changed in the 1990s as America began experimenting with deregulating parts of the electric utility industry.
Political leaders in favor of opening the industry to more kinds of business said deregulation would lead to more efficient power production and delivery, with the potential for lower prices for consumers. Entrepreneurs saw the chance to make money by finding new ways to find cheap electricity and sell it at a markup.
The reliability councils responded by including members from two new parts of the industry.
Merchant power plant operators were not part of traditional utilities, but built generating stations hoping to sell electricity at a profit. The other new addition to the industry was energy marketers, who made money handling the buying and selling of power among utilities. Although energy marketers and merchant plant operators didn’t own or maintain power lines, they affected how those lines were being used.
At about the same time these new players were entering the reliability councils, an NERC study group developed some proposals for federal legislation to enforce the guidelines of the councils.
A voluntary, self-governing group asking for more regulations in the midst of experiments with de-regulation may sound strangely out of character. But adding rules to create deregulation has been the usual approach for the government's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency organized under the Department of Energy. FERC proposed that conventional utilities, the new merchant power plants, and energy traders get together to form Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) to arrange the orderly movement of electricity across multi-state areas.
Two investor-owned utilities in Kentucky, LG&E and KU, joined the Midwest Independent System Operator, a regional transmission group with members in Indiana and Illinois.
So far, Kentucky’s electric cooperatives have not joined a regional transmission organization. But they are still interconnected with neighboring utilities and continue to operate within regional grids.
Thirty years ago, when electric utilities first banded together to form the reliability councils, they sold most of their power to their own nearby customers. State government agencies such as public service commissions kept watch on what happened within their borders. But since the federal 1992 Energy Policy Act allowed non-utilities, such as merchant power plants and energy marketers, to generate and sell electricity, large shipments of power over longer distances have become more common.
Many utility industry insiders cite this increase in power transactions as a possible contributing factor behind the 2003 blackout. Other trends they say that put stress on the transmission grid include the entry of merchant plants into the system, the creation of Regional Transmission Organizations, downsizing of staff at many investor-owned, profit-oriented utilities, and less coordination among utilities because of the influence of competition.
Mike Core says, “There is a fundamental difference in the way the grid was originally designed and the way it’s being used today. There does need to be more investment if you’re going to use the grid as an interstate highway instead of a neighborly and regional system. To give just one example, even though about 200,000 megawatts of gas-fired generation has been added nationally since the year 2000, there has not been a similar investment in transmission to accommodate it.”
The National Rural Electric Co-op Association, which represents nearly 1,000 electric co-ops, supports improvements to the grid. NRECA says North America needs a new electric transmission grid that would be the equivalent of the Interstate Highway System.
The highway analogy doesn’t mean constructing an entirely new grid for long-distance power shipments, but rather making improvements to the existing grid. It’s the equivalent of widening some lanes, adding a few bridges, and making more turn lanes. New segments might be added, but the system does not need to be completely repaved or bypassed.
Who will pay for improving the transmission network? How much will it cost? Would ratepayers everywhere, even if their local system didn’t need enhancements, be willing to pay more on their monthly bills for improvements to the national grid?
And after the tough issue of money gets resolved, other hard questions pop up. Like, who’s in charge?
Overlapping jurisdictions among regulatory agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (which makes loans to more than 700 electric co-ops across the nation), and state public service commissions have created a mishmash of rules, regulations, and priorities. In many states local laws prevent certain kinds of businesses from building transmission projects. Environmental and land-use concerns complicate the building of any transmission line.
Deregulation, or more accurately, restructuring, was supposed to make energy cheaper for consumers. But people are beginning to understand the consequences. Shipping power from “cheap” suppliers over long distances to other customers means that the transmission grid must be improved and expanded. It costs money to increase capacity and maintain reliability. And the costs to make those improvements will eventually be passed along to customers, making energy more expensive. The 2003 blackout may be just the catalyst needed to finally convince utilities, ratepayers, and political leaders to work together. Moving beyond the blackout means taking a realistic look at the long-term consequences of changing energy policies.
MORE WORK FOR THE GRID
Utility experts say the national system of electric transmission lines, known as the grid, is being asked to do more than it was designed to do. Although they say we don’t know yet what caused this summer’s blackout, here are the trends they say put stress on the lines that could lead to power failures:
- More electric power transactions over longer distances as a result of deregulation
- Increased competition producing less coordination among utilities
- Independent “merchant power plants” being added to the grid
- The creation of Regional Transmission Organizations
- Staff reductions by investor-owned utilities
MORE INFO ON THE TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICTY
www.nerc.com: The North American Electric Reliability Council Web site features links to the 10 regional reliability councils.
www.ferc.gov: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Web site features a continually updated section on the search for the causes of the 2003 blackout, as well as information about regional transmission organizations and other aspects of the electric utility industry.
www.nreca.coop: The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Web site features news about congressional testimony and other information relevant to the investigations into the causes of the 2003 blackout.