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After The Blackout - Going Back To The Experts

by Kate Stohr, Aug 18, 2003
 

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Three days after we first posted our article ("Studying How To Avoid Blackouts") about the effort Con Edison was making to avoid blackouts in New York, New Yorkers were among the victims of the largest blackout in the nation's history - and it had nothing to do with the research Con Edison was conducting.

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At its new center in the Bronx, as the article explains, Con Edison is doing research intended to help prevent localized power outages, like the one in Upper Manhattan in 1999, which was caused by a cable failure in Con Edison's local distribution network.

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The power outage on Thursday, August 14, was of another scale and magnitude altogether -- and demonstrated just how vulnerable local utilities, including Con Edison, are to the collapse of regional transmission systems. The blackout swept across eight states and parts of Canada and the Midwest within seconds -- even though steps taken after the blackout of 1965 were meant to safeguard against just such an event.

"What happened on Thursday was beyond Con Edison's territory," said Con Edison spokesperson Chris Olert by e-mail. "One of the reasons Con Edison shut down was because generators shut down: Without the power, Con Edison has nothing to distribute to customers."

Following the deregulation of the industry in the 1990s, Con Edison no longer generates power, but is responsible only for distributing it throughout New York City and parts of Westchester. According to Con Edison, there was no damage to its system, which shut down automatically as it was designed to do to prevent overloading.

"For some reason, some transmission lines got overloaded, and they tripped out. And for some reason, the outage was not contained to an area where it should have been contained, and that's part of a whole investigation as to why did that happen." said Luther Dow, director of Power Delivery and Markets at the Electric Power Research Institute when contacted again three days after the blackout.

While the exact cause of the massive power outage is not clear as of this writing, early inquiries suggest three failed transmission lines in Ohio may have triggered a domino effect which left some 50 million people without power. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, a massive power swing just before the lights went out at 4:11PM that afternoon may have caused generators throughout the region to automatically shutdown -- including the power plants that supply Con Edison.

In the original story, we noted that industry rating groups say Con Edison's system is the most reliable in the country. "Because of the way the system is laid out and the maintenance, it is by far the most reliable system. No one even comes close to them," Walter Zinger, an electrical engineer with the Electric Power Research Institute told us. And, Mayor Bloomberg defended the utility's handling of the outage in a press conference Friday. "I think [Con Edison] actually did a good job. I am sure they could have done some things better," he said. According to the mayor, the utility was delayed in bringing the system back on line by problems with other utilities upstate.

Maybe so, but Con Edison's system was affected along with the rest of the region. And city and state officials, including Bloomberg, are demanding an investigation into what caused August 14th's cascading failures. Weren't steps taken after 1965 to prevent local outages from affecting the entire region? What safeguards were in place to protect the city and state from regional power failures, they and others want to know, and why did they fail?

"We have to take a look and see why a problem someplace outside of this part of the power grid caused so much chaos within it. It wasn't supposed to happen," said the mayor.

CRITICAL PRESCIENCE?

"I think Con Ed is sitting in this category of utilities that have been disinvesting in both the physical infrastructure and the human infrastructure with regards to transmission," State Assembly Representative Paul Tonko told us when we first reported this story. Concerned about bottlenecks in the regional system, he and Jason K. Babbie, a policy analyst with the New York Public Interest Research Group, urged Con Edison to look at new and more efficient transmission technology, including super conductivity cables, to open up the city's power market and keep costs down. How prescient they were, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

In the original story, we also cited a study released by the New York State Energy Planning Board in 2000 found that capital investments in the power transmission system declined dramatically from 1988 to 1998 (from $304.4 million in constant 1998 dollars to just $90 million), but that reliability appeared to be unaffected.

"All the analyses performed lead to the conclusion that New York State's transmission system has operated in a highly reliable manner. Further, New York's bulk transmission system is improving in its ability to weather severe disturbances," the report read.

"That was a troublesome notion back then, and it is now. It's taken on new relevance with all that's happened here," said Tonko when we talked to him again after the blackout. "I am of the belief that no major investment has been made on the transmission side in the private sector since the 1960's, and in the public sector since the 1970's. But demand has grown tremendously, and we've been putting an overwhelming strain on the system."

Tonko also worries that, following deregulation, responsibility for maintaining the state's transmission system and putting in place safeguards that might prevent failures in one part of the grid from affecting other parts of the grid is not clearly defined.

Con Edison says it is responsible for maintaining the high-voltage transmission lines it owns (as well as the local low-voltage cables we discussed). But according to Con Edison spokesperson D. Joy Farber, the New York Independent System Operator, which was formed in 1998 to manage the market for electricity in New York State after the industry was deregulated, is responsible for maintaining the state's transmission system as a whole.

Now Tonko's longtime call to invest in the nation's power transmission system is being echoed from officials at all levels. Speaking in California, President George W. Bush called the blackout "a wake-up call," and said the nation's electrical grid must be upgraded. Mayor Bloomberg has also called for investment in new transmission lines.

"Nobody wants to have a power line going through their backyard, but we have to face the issue that if you want to have electricity-and we really have no choice, we have to have electricity, our society depends on large amounts of electricity and it has to be reliable-that means building power plants, upgrading power plants and building transmission lines," the mayor said over the weekend.

As for the cable center, although Thursday's blackout is unrelated to the more locally-oriented, low-voltage research Con Edison is conducting in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute in the Bronx, Dow said the institute was in the process of forming a similar center to study transmission cables which would be based at its facilities in Lenox, Massachusetts. Its researchers have helped scrutinize data after major power failures in the past, and he said, would do so again if called on.

"There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of pieces of data that are going to have to be analyzed to put together the whole problem," Dow said, "and so that's what the industry will be doing over the next few days."


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