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After The Blackout

The great blackout of 2003 has gone underground.

After a couple weeks in the headlines, talk of America’s largest power outage has moved into the offices of engineers and political back rooms.

It could take weeks or months for technical investigators to finish the detailed work of figuring out exactly what caused tens of millions of people in the northeast U.S. and part of Canada to lose power August 14 and 15.

But politicians may not wait for that final answer. This fall Congress had hoped to finish nearly two years of work on a wide-ranging energy plan. The bill didn’t focus on the reliability of the nation’s electric system. Until now.

For electric cooperatives in Kentucky the trauma to the north meant a split-second blip in the connection to other utilities. A sufficient supply of electricity in the state and quick disconnections protected electric co-op consumers in Kentucky from feeling any effects of the outage.

But for almost everyone, understanding the blackout required reminders about the basics of electricity. Those facts of physics include: electric utilities are connected in a power grid; you can’t store the kind of electricity we use in our homes and businesses (batteries still aren’t big enough); and electricity flows like water—it has to go somewhere.

That comparison with water helps explain what happened.

In a Cleveland suburb on a Thursday afternoon electric line problems caused the utility to lose power. Because the science of physics dictates that power tries to flow where it is needed, two Michigan utilities started flowing power into Ohio to make up for the loss in Cleveland.

The reduction in power was detected in Canada, which had been importing power from New York and Michigan because several Canadian plants were out of service. To fill the power void in Cleveland, electricity suddenly reversed itself and started flowing in a roundabout way from Canada through Michigan to Ohio. Monitors in New York state sensed the power flowing out of Canada, and sent still more electricity gushing north.

But as overloaded power lines shut down, causing power plants to shut down in the Midwest, electronic instruments closed the Canadian-Michigan border. The Canadian electricity headed back around Lake Erie for a head-on collision with the electricity flowing from New York. To protect the electric systems, New York power plants frantically shut down in a “cascading blackout” that covered hundreds of miles in just a few minutes.

Over the next 24 hours, affected utilities slowly started reopening the circuits. The return of the electricity had to be carefully coordinated so the system didn’t get out of balance and produce another blackout.

That’s an informed guess about what happened. Why it happened will take a detailed analysis of tens of thousands of pages of data, says Mike Core, president and CEO of Big Rivers Electric Co-op based in Henderson.

“The utility system worked because it disconnected itself to save itself,” says Core. The head of the generation and transmission co-op that supplies power for three distribution co-ops in western Kentucky adds, “Why it didn’t work sooner so the outage was contained is the question that needs to be answered.”

Core is especially familiar with these kinds of issues because he chairs the executive committee of the East Central Area Reliability Coordination Agreement. That group tries to make sure our 9-state region has enough electricity and that it can get where it is needed.

Core says that although utilities are constantly doing studies and simulations to try to prevent large-scale outages, it’s almost impossible to plan for everything that could go wrong. He notes that the more you build a utility system to be reliable, the more it costs. And those costs show up in the form of higher electric rates.

The head of East Kentucky Power Co-op based in Winchester acknowledges that a similar major outage could happen in Kentucky. “But it’s highly unlikely,” says President and CEO Roy Palk.

He says that among the reasons it’s not likely to happen here is that East Kentucky, and the 16 distribution co-ops it supplies with power, operate as cooperatives.

Palk says that because East Kentucky is a co-op it does not have a goal of making money by shipping electricity across state borders.

“We don’t operate our system as a commercial entity,” says Palk. He says that rather than running the risk of overloading the electric system by selling transmission access for profit, “We only use it to serve our consumers.”

Still, Palk and other utility officials have been saying for years that the nation’s transmission grid desperately needs upgrading.

Palk says that even though electric utility deregulation of the last 10 years has increased interstate shipments of electricity, “We haven’t yet broken ground for a truly interstate electric transmission network.”

That need for a large national updating of the transmission grid brings the issue back around to the energy bill being considered in Washington, D.C. In that debate, electric co-op leaders are warning against moving too quickly to try to prevent another major blackout.

There’s general agreement the nation’s transmission system needs an overhaul. But whether that transmission system is to blame for the 2003 blackout is still unknown. Electric co-op officials warn that rushing into a political answer before utility engineers finish their investigation could result in a bad solution to the wrong problem.

Big Rivers’ Mike Core urges a more measured approach: “We’ve got to find out what happened and learn from that.”

Tunes ‘n’ Burgoo
The Bluegrass Heritage Festival & Burgoo Cook-Off takes place at Lykins Park in Winchester October 10-11. For the lineup, ticket prices, and lodging info, call (800) 298-9105 or click on the “Event Calendar” on the Internet Web site at

Traveling memorial
The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will bring the message of The Wall home to Jessamine County October 16-19. Located at Camp Nelson Heritage Park, the exhibition will feature the replica as well as an information center and traveling museum displaying memorabilia left at The Wall in Washington. There is no charge for admission. For information contact the Office of Jessamine County Judge/Executive Wm. Neal Cassity at (859) 885-4500.

Save time, save lives
The National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs want to remind you to put new batteries in your smoke alarms October 26—the day we go off daylight-saving time. It’s part of their “Change Your Clock, Change Your Battery” campaign they say is a simple, effective way to reduce home fire deaths.

Bumper Sticker
Seen on a truck in Winchester:
“Even though this is a STUPID STICKER you’re squinting to read it.”

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