Ten years after historic blackout, are we better off?

August 13, 2013

AP/File
Pennsylvania Power and Light power lines weave their way over Bald Eagle Mountain in Williamsport, Pa.

August 14, 2003 Mike Kormos was coming home from a conference when he got a call.

“They said something had happened and I needed to report to the office as soon as possible,” he said.

Kormos rushed to his offices at PJM where he is Executive Vice President of Operations, overseeing part of the electrical grid. Shortly after he got to the office, one of the largest blackouts in history cascaded across the Northeast  and Midwest. Over 50 million people lost power in both the U.S. and Canada, including Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto and New York. Some would be without power for two days. The event contributed to 11 deaths and cost between $4 and 8 billion.

Some people’s power wouldn't return until two days later. The cause of the outage was complicated but largely due to infrastructure invented in the era of Thomas Edison.

The age of the system is why this week, the Obama administration called for increased spending to upgrade the nation’s electric power system. There was a time shortly after 9/11, that some thought terrorist activity would make us most vulnerable to major blackouts.

Because the brownout of 2003 was a few years after 9/11, and blackouts on the big transmission grid are rare, Kormos and his team thought this outage might be a case of terrorism. But later they found out the  blackout was partially the fault of another big T.

“Trees had interfered with some of the lines and the lines ended up basically tripping,” explained Kormos.

It may seem strange that such a simple thing could contribute to one of the biggest blackouts in history, but this was a case of a domino effect.  An Ohio electric company hadn't trimmed its trees, and so when heavy wires began to droop, they touched the top of branches and tripped. That put extra energy on to other lines, which in turn also drooped under heavier loads and hit trees.

And Kormos says, there was another big trouble-causing T: tools.

To understand their importance, you first have to learn how the grid works.

UNDERSTANDING THE GRID

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a science columnist and author of Before The Lights go Out. She says we use more energy and produce more emissions through electricity than we do with anything else, including transportation.  But because the electrical grid is complicated, we don’t think about it as much.

“Electricity is like these little elves that live in the walls and you forget that there is all this infrastructure in the background,” said Koerth-Baker.

That’s why she wants to make sure folks understand the grid.

“I like to say it’s like a lazy river at a water park. It has to move along at a constant speed which is analogous to frequency and it has to move along at a constant depth, which is analogous to what engineers call voltage.”

All along this river are drains which are like people using energy. There are also faucets, filling up the river, that’s like companies making energy.

“And if that [balance] gets out of whack by even fractions of a percent, you get blackouts,” said Koerth-Baker. 

The 2003 blackout was caused by that imbalance between energy supply and demand. That happened for a bunch of reasons, like those trees. But one of the biggest problems is that energy providers couldn’t see the problem-- they didn’t have the tools to get a picture of where that lazy river had blockages, or overflows, and where they could reroute it.

CHANGES IN THE GRID

A lot has changed in the 10 years since the blackout. New technology, like phasor measurement units (PMUs), give more accurate pictures of what happens on the grid. Kormos compares what they had in 2003 to an x-ray, and what they have today, to an MRI. There are also new regulations as a result of the blackout, such as high fees for not trimming trees and mandatory training. Experts say all that means blackouts on the scale of 2003 are less likely today. But they also say we need to be doing a lot more to be ready for the future.

John Estey is the Executive Chair at S&C Electric Company, a business that makes energy products to build smart grids.

“A smart grid is the use of intelligent controls, software communication and automation to help improve the reliability and the efficiency of the delivery of electricity,” he explained. “It’s a grid with a lot of brains.”

To show me what that means, Estey takes me to big warehouse room with a miniature city  inside it. The city has real lights and electrical wires. But this isn’t just any city, it’s a city that has upgraded to a smart grid.

Estey points to little boxes on top of the electrical poles and explains they are smart devices. Each of the boxes takes measurements and tells the other devices how much energy they are carrying, if there are any problems, and how energy might be rerouted.

For the sake of demonstration, the warehouse has a big switch that mimics the power of God. It can short-circuit wires or take an entire energy plant offline. Estey tells a colleague to pretend that someone using a backhoe hit an underground electrical wire. The system shuts down the area around the severed wire, so dangerous electricity isn’t running through it. Then the power automatically routes around the problem so people in surrounding areas don’t lose their power.

“The streets stayed on through the whole thing,” Estey declared proudly.

In an old grid, there wouldn’t be any smart boxes to locate the problem. The company would have to wait until people called in to report it. Then they’d drive around just looking for the downed wire. Once they found it, they’d have to reroute each switch manually. That can take hours, instead of seconds and leave thousands, instead of hundreds, without electricity.

MOVING THE GRID FORWARD

Maggie Koerth-Baker says in addition to stopping blackouts, the way we updated the grid will determine what we can do over the next 30 years in terms of all kinds of energy infrastructure, like using renewables. So what’s in the way?

“We [need to] invest $8 billion a year to make the grid stronger. $17-20 billion dollars to make it smarter,” said Koerth-Baker.

That sounds like a lot of money. But experts estimate that blackouts cost U.S. customers $79 billion each year and savings with a smart grid could be as high as $49 billion a year.

“But because we don’t have the incentives in place for anybody to be thinking about and benefiting financially from  those long term changes, there is nobody really paying attention to them” said Koerth-Baker.

For example, smart grids would make it easier for people to add solar panels to their houses. They could produce energy for themselves, but also put it back on the grid or provide energy to their neighbors. But why would a company that makes money selling energy, pay to build something that might lower their profits?

That's just one of many questions regulators across the country are working to solve. Next in the series Flipping the Switch, we’ll explore some of the political and social factors that are helping and hindering improvements to our current electrical grid.


Shannon Heffernan is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h