South Florida Blackout: Are More Ahead?

In the wake of the power outages that swept South Florida this afternoon, the usual questions are sure to raise their heads: had Florida Power & Light (FPL) done all it could to enhance and maintain infrastructure in the affected region, with some 6 million inhabitants and perhaps 680,000 affected customers? Was it alert and on top of events today, which was almost record-hot, with summer-like air conditioning loads? Or was it like the sleepy and controversial Ohio utility in whose operating region the great Northeast-Midwest blackout of August 2003 began? Are blackouts inevitable?

An IEEE Spectrum article published in June 2000 drew attention to a crisis in U.S. power systems: everywhere in the country grids were thin-stretched, with additions to transmission and generation lagging behind growth in electricity demand, and with the personnel needed to design and maintain power systems in ever-shorter supply. Since then, some regions have been much more successful than others in building out their power systems and improving their management: New England, for example, has a highly regarded independent system operator, which has successfully overcome political and community obstacles to expand the region's transmission system.

FP&L reports that the South Florida blackout began with troubles at an electricity distribution substation at a nuclear power plant, and that the nuclear reactors shut down, either right before the outage or in response to it. When troubles develop in a the grid, electricity turbines in generating plants spontaneously speed up in an effort to maintain voltage and frequency levels; they can burn out unless they shut themselves down to protect themselves.

Since power systems can easily collapse in reaction to small initiating causes, some argue that large blackouts are mathematically inevitable, that only their scope and consequences can be mitigated. Indignantly, power system specialists reject the counsels of despair. Bloviating blogsters are supposed to know all the answers, but this one is an agnostic.

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