Background to the Blackout

A compendium of IEEE Spectrum material

4 min read


Power engineers, IEEE members, and the Spectrum reporters and editors who cover power and energy have been sounding the alarm about grid problems and potential cascading failures for nearly a decade. What follows is a compendium of feature articles, news reports, and essays that have appeared in IEEE Spectrum magazine about previous power outages, grid reliability and security, and electric power policy.

2002 Department of Energy grid study

An expert team organized by the U.S. Department of Energy prepared to release its National Transmission Grid Study at a time when other authorities were sounding alarms about the state of the transmission system.

See "Energy Team Readies Major Transmission Study," by Barbara Klein and William Sweet.

2001 Cheney task force on energy policy

The controversial study headed by U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney squarely recognized a crisis in the electricity sector but took a rather one-dimensional view of the problem. Better ways of operating transmission systems, recommended by the policy arm of IEEE, got short shrift in the report. The study paid lip service, but not very forcefully, to strengthening the nation's self-managing reliability organization by giving it greater enforcement powers.

See "Energy Woes," by William Sweet and Elizabeth A. Bretz.

Three views on deregulation of the U.S. electric industry

The U.K. model on which U.S. electric industry deregulation was based is, after 10 years, a failure. In addition to the essay explaining Britain's deregulation woes, two other views on the problems inherent in the deregulation of electric energy are presented.

See "Technology Offers Solutions to the Current Power Crisis" by Karl Stahlkopf, "Electricity Restructuring in Britain: Not a Model to Follow" by Theo MacGregor, and "Putting Consumers First" by Glenn English.

Seeing at a glance what's up with the grid

While the electric power system was designed as the ultimate in plug-and-play convenience, the humble wall outlet has become a gateway to one of the largest and most complex of man-made objects. Basically the grid in most of North America is just one big electric circuit encompassing billions of components, tens of millions of kilometers of transmission line, and thousands of generators. More than ever, it's essential for power traders, grid managers, public service boards, and the public itself to be able to see and imagine what's going on.

See "Visualizing the Electric Grid," by Thomas J. Overbye and James D. Weber.

2000 post-outage study team (POST)

Following widespread power outages in the summer of 1999, from New York City and New England to Chicago and Texas, the U.S. Department of Energy convened an expert panel to diagnose the situation. A picture emerged in that panel's hearings of a power system that was already being stretched to its limits. Whether the talk was of generation and transmission capacity, distribution lines or control equipment, service personnel or simulation engineers, it was the same story: too few resources to easily satisfy demands made on systems designed for radically different requirements.

See "Restructuring the Thin-Stretched Grid," by William Sweet.

An outstanding grid regulating organization

Even at a time when the electric power system was stretched to its limits, and there had yet to be any serious test of the newly created "independent system operators" established to manage deregulated grid systems, one such organization stood out as exceptionally competent and effective. This was the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland ISO, or, formally, the PJM Interconnection--an organization that proved its mettle once again on 14 August, when it largely preventing the cascading outage that began in Ohio from infecting its control area.

See "PJM Interconnection: Model of a Smooth Operator," by Elizabeth A. Bretz.

Could hackers be the next big threat?

When the northeastern grid went down on 14 August, suspicions immediately centered on the possibility of terrorism. That fear was almost certainly unfounded, but this does not mean that such threats are non-existent. The nation's electric power systems are more dependent all the time on communications, and those communications offer ill-willed hackers tempting targets.

See "The Next Threat to Grid Reliability--Data Security," by David A. Jones and Ronald L. Skelton.

Lessons from the 1996 California outages

The inglorious summer of 1996 blackouts taught the West to improve emergency control and protection and to sharpen simulation techniques. Though California would experience another huge electricity crisis in 2001�2002, that one was largely induced by a faulty system of deregulation that bankrupted the state's utilities. The state's independent system operator, working frantically, largely kept the lights on.

See "Improving Grid Behavior," by Carson W. Taylor.

Challenges to grid reliability from deregulation

Even as the lessons of California were being absorbed, it was evident that the process of separating electricity generation from transmission was sowing uncertainty as to who was responsible for making new investments--or even identifying new investment needs. And experts predicted that maintain reliable grids in a deregulated power industry would get harder, as temptations to cut corners multiplied.

See "Keeping the Lights On," by John D. Mountford and Ricardo R. Austria.

The promise of new technology

The promise of new technologies offering much closer management of electricity flows is still largely unrealized. One such technology, known as flexible ac transmission systems or FACTS, relies on large-scale semiconductor devices. Another technology, pioneered in the western grid system, allows power system dynamics to be monitored in real time. It depends on digital communications and GPS-based time-keeping. Yet even in 1997, the buildout and effective use of such system was hampered by inadequate financing and manpower, Spectrum learned from experts like former U.S. energy secretary Hazel O'Leary.

See "Tighter Controls for Busier Systems," by Karl E. Stahlkopf and Mark R. Wilhelm.

Lessons from abroad?

In the wake of the 14 August disturbance, former U.S. energy secretary Bill Richardson compared the U.S. electricity system to those of Third World countries. That may have been insulting to less advanced economies. In 1997, two emigré engineers from Russia argued that the United States had much to learn from practices developed in the former Soviet Union. However that may be, it's evident that there are poor countries with much more reliable grids, and few if any rich countries with grids that experience as frequent and serious problems.

See "Heading Off Emergencies in Large Electric Grids," by Nickolai Grudinin and Ilya Roytelman.

Brainpower outage preceded blackout

The electric power industry in the United States is facing a serious and potentially dangerous shortage of people with the know-how necessary to maintain the grid. Badrul Chowdhury, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department of the University of Missouri-Rolla, notes that for decades, salaries paid power engineers have been lower than for virtually all other electrical engineers. Consequently, student enrollments have steadily declined, and university programs have atrophied. In addition, as the electric power industry has reorganized to allow for greater competition, utilities have cut staff. These cuts occurred even as the technical requirements of running the grid have become spectacularly more demanding.

See "Power Education at the Crossroads," by Badrul Chowdhury.

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