Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Have We Learned Anything From the Great Blackout of 2003?

Nine years ago, the Great Blackout of 2003 struck the United States and parts of Canada from Ohio to New York. 50-60 million people were thrown into darkness, including millions in the New York City metro area. I was among those who had to figure out how to get home without subways/PATH or rail signals operating. Highways and roads were jammed because traffic signals were out.

Power was eventually restored, with the outage running as long as 30 hours in some parts of the affected area, and we learned that the outage was initially due to a transmission line in Ohio failing due to a tree falling, but the outage spread as utilities failed to contain the problems. That triggered a cascading failure across the Northeast.

The utility responsible for maintaining that Ohio transmission line failed to maintain its right of way and carry out tree trimming and other preventative actions.

Has the United States improved its transmission infrastructure to the point where we don't have to worry about another catastrophic blackout? I'm not so sure. Utilities and their regulators have improved their communications to reduce the chances that a blackout in one interconnect will affect others.

But as we've seen over just the past year, utilities have repeatedly fallen short on maintaining their utility rights of way - particularly on tree trimming. Blackouts due to Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Irene, and the October blizzard of 2012 all were exacerbated by utilities that failed to deal with tree trimming issues in a systematic way. Connecticut was particularly hard hit by those storms, and CLP's disastrous efforts in restoring power were hammered by state and local officials. A failure to carry out an effective tree trimming program was identified as a contributing factor.

Regulators have to do a better job in making sure that the companies are investing in the transmission grid and responding to outages in a timely manner. They have to make sure that the utilities are investing in tree trimming programs to protect their infrastructure, though that would seem like a no-brainer since it's cheaper to protect the transmission lines through a systematic tree trimming program than trying to rebuild parts of the network during a crisis. Utilities have to upgrade and invest in technologies, and that also means that rate payers have to deal with higher costs that are passed on to them.

PSE&G has been doing a better job of trying to upgrade its infrastructure; it's currently upgrading transmission lines in Rutherford and Fair Lawn as well as building out its distributed solar power system. Con Ed is also spending on its infrastructure, but with mixed results - there are perpetual concerns of brownouts and blackouts whenever the temperatures spike during the summer because the distribution system can barely keep up with demand. That has to change.

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