The Future of Electricity
Blackout report says rules weren't followed
The final report on last summer’s massive power outage says there were plenty of rules in place to prevent the August 14 blackout. The problem was that people didn’t follow them.
After months of investigation and analysis by technical experts, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force recently issued its final report on the power failure that affected 50 million people in eight states and Ontario.
Canadian and American experts combed through thousands of documents, examined computer records down to split-second intervals, and investigated procedures. Their joint report contains a wealth of details about what went wrong and why—and 46 recommendations. Many of those recommendations focus on ways to make sure rules are followed in the three key areas of reliability, maintenance, and training.
David Mohre, executive director of the Energy and Power Division at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), says, “Right after the blackout happened there was a call for a massive, $100-$200 billion new investment in transmission—but this report clearly says that the transmission system’s capability, its load carrying capacity, had nothing to do with the August outage. The report also makes it clear that there was no lack of generation. Instead, the problems that day were related to people not following reliability rules, people not trimming trees, and people not training system operators properly.”
Reliability rules have been around a long time.
In 1968, nearly a dozen regional electric utility councils formed the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) to share information and standardize rules for planning and operation.
But following those rules has always been voluntary.
For six years, NRECA has supported legislation to make those standards mandatory. NRECA says more forceful standards are needed because other changes in federal laws and regulations have opened the industry to higher levels of competition that have increased activity on transmission lines.
“Even though Congress still has not passed any such legislation, NERC is moving forward on its own on several fronts,” says Mohre. “This spring NERC has conducted more than 20 ‘readiness audits,’ during which a team is sent to a control area to evaluate whether utility operators are ready to handle emergency conditions.”
Mohre says that NERC is also updating its standards to make them more easily enforceable. One especially important new policy allows NERC to make public the names of utilities that violate its guidelines.
Trimming trees is not a new idea, either.
Every electric utility has a formal schedule of right-of-way maintenance that includes trimming trees, clearing undergrowth, and generally maintaining poles, transformers, and lines so electricity can move safely and efficiently. However, regular weather and animal damage makes reacting to interruptions vital.
The Task Force report includes new information about how the blackout began, pointing to events involving failures of three high-voltage transmission lines when tree limbs touched lines belonging to FirstEnergy in the Cleveland area.
Many industry experts believe that if FirstEnergy operators had reacted differently to the damage to their lines, the blackout would have been confined to Ohio, instead of turning into an international catastrophe. The report identified inadequate training of operators as a major reason for this failure.
Related to the ability of system operators to properly respond to system failures are the issues of good information and good analysis. The Task Force report describes important causes of the blackout as “inadequate system understanding” and “inadequate situational awareness.” In plain English, some operators in Ohio and elsewhere didn’t fully understand what was happening that afternoon. In some cases information on computer screens lagged behind the real events by enough seconds and minutes to give a false picture of the situation. Task Force recommendations include improving training and certification requirements for operators. But they don’t quite address the issue of improving computer models or fine-tuning automated relays.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has recently adopted a policy that equates following NERC reliability standards with good utility practices. That legal distinction makes failure to follow the reliability standards very risky in terms of liability to utility customers and in the financial marketplace.
On the other hand, FERC, which oversaw the Task Force, has been rather quiet about how reliability could be affected by deregulation and the related increase in the use of the national grid to move electricity over longer distances.
The Task Force report does mention the role of one development that resulted from moves toward deregulation—the creation of Regional Transmission Organizations. The report singles out the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) Regional Transmission Organization as not having yet developed the ability to properly manage short-term reliability, despite FERC’s approval of MISO in 2001.
Arguments over who deserves how much blame for the blackout and its consequences are likely to continue for a long time—FirstEnergy has disputed the heavy share of blame it received in the report. In the meantime, electric utilities will be busy upgrading their computer systems, and focusing more attention and more money on keeping their operators up-to-date on the best procedures and practices to follow to maintain and improve reliability.
If you want to see the complete final report of the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force, you can find it on the Internet at https://reports.energy.gov.
You can also read more about the details and implications of last summer’s huge power outage in past Kentucky Living magazines, available in the archives at www.KentuckyLiving.com. Look for “After the Blackout” in the October 2003 Commonwealths column or “Beyond the Blackout” in the November 2003 Future of Electricity column. Or simply search the site for “blackout.”
Next month: Net Metering