Strengthening the Grid, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago this week, a massive electrical blackout struck the northeastern US and parts of Canada, affecting some 55 million people. IEEE Spectrum journalist Bill Sweet describes the causes of the outage and how the electrical grid has changed since the 2003 failure.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

Ten years ago this week, you wouldn't have heard a regular edition of SCIENCE FRIDAY. Instead, you would've heard coverage like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The outage began shortly after 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So everything went out - the computers, the phones, the TVs, everything.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The subways appear not to be running.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And in the Eastern U.S., New York City, Buffalo, New York, and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, among others.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Small towns, from Detroit to the east, as well. None of the traffic lights are working, obviously. So things have gridlocked pretty quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Many of the cities in the province of Ontario are without power right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Detroit Metro Airport is reporting no takeoffs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: There's no sign of terrorism as a cause, according to authorities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Private citizens directing traffic. One guy, his qualification seems to be a whistle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Some 50 million people live in the affected areas.

LICHTMAN: Remember that time? That outage happened late afternoon on a Thursday, and by Friday afternoon, our New York studios were just starting to get power back from that massive outage. So 10 years later, could that outage happen again? What did we learn from that 2003 blackout?

Joining me now to talk about it is William Sweet. Back in 2003, he coordinated much of the coverage of the blackout for IEEE Spectrum. That's a publication covering the electronics and electrical engineering industry. And now he's managing editor of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter, and the editor of its EnergyWise newsletter and blog. Welcome to the show.

WILLIAM SWEET: Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: Have we changed since then?

SWEET: Oh, have we changed. It's a complicated and mixed picture. I'd say that in terms of the major cause of the blackout that was singled out in analytic reports in the following years, we probably have changed rather substantially for the better. The main cause of the blackout was found to be institutional more than narrowly technical, and I think that has been substantially addressed.

On the other hand, there were a lot of deeper, underlying causes that certainly had led some experts - even before the blackout - to think something like this was going to happen that have been a lot tougher to address, and which are, I think, to a certain extent, are still with us. So I don't think we can say that - we certainly can't say that the possibility of another really major blackout has been eliminated, and some would say that possibly can never be eliminated.

LICHTMAN: Right. I mean, let's take the WABAC Machine to 2003. I remember the lore about that blackout 10 years ago was that it was all caused by an infamous tree branch falling in Ohio. Is that true?

SWEET: That was certainly one of the significant causes of it. There was also a plant that started acting funny that had to be taken offline, which led to power outages, as well. And then a number of other transmission lines went down. This was all in an area of northeastern Ohio, which happens to be right on the major transmission corridor between the Middle West and the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

It's an area where electricity is going back and forth in huge volumes all the time. You know, it's like water sloshing back and forth back in a pan, depending on where demand is highest and whether our supply is higher or lower. And all of these problems arose within the operating area of one major Ohio utility, and it's fair to say that, although tree-trimming was certainly a significant factor in this, that the bigger factor was that these utility systems - that it needed to monitor what was going on in real time on the grid were not working properly.

And its visualization equipment in the control room was down, and so the utility was very slow to catch on to the fact that bad things were going on. Other neighboring organizations were actually quicker to see that there were problems in this area than it itself was. And that's really what led to things going out of control.

LICHTMAN: And that's gotten better, right? The monitoring has gotten better since then?

SWEET: It's gotten better. What's gotten particularly better is that national standards corroborating grid organizations have now been made mandatory. At the time that the blackout occurred, the utilities were joined together in a national electricity reliability organization that set standards and operating procedures for the grid.

But those standards were voluntary. Compliance with those standards was voluntary at that time. And the organization that coordinates those standards, the North American Electric Reliability Council, NERC, had been seeking legislation to have its standards made legally mandatory, but had been unable to do so at that point.

Since the blackout, and certainly one of the first results of the blackout was that the federal government finally kicked into action and passed national energy legislation making those standards mandatory on all participants in the grid so that, you know, if something like this were to happen again, that Ohio Utility could be found to have broken the law.

LICHTMAN: Right.

SWEET: And would be certainly civilly liable, and perhaps even criminally liable for the types of, you might say, inaction found to have occurred.

LICHTMAN: It seems like the electrical landscape has changed a lot. How is the grid holding up with renewable energies that are less predictable feeding in energy - wind and solar - into the grid?

SWEET: Well, that's...

LICHTMAN: Does that cause - is that a new threat?

SWEET: It's certainly a new problem that has to be contended with. As you get larger fractions of solar and wind energy, you have to contend with the fact that that kind of power is more unpredictable and, you know, sort of what's called baseline power in the industry, power that comes from really big plants like coal plants or nuclear plants or gas plants, they just keep churning out the electricity pretty much whenever you need it.

When you rely on reliable energy, of course, you're dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing. And so that type of energy is quite intermittent, and that has to be taken into account in managing the grid. So, yes, that's a major new stress on the grid. And meanwhile, there were a lot of stresses already on the grid at the time of 2003 that are also still serious considerations.

LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Talking with William Sweet from IEEE. So what are the things we're still worrying about?

SWEET: Well, I'd say two things that I would single out immediately that were already well identified before 2003. One was that, you know, by comparison with other industries, investment is quite low in the electric power industry. And people, you know, who are concerned about the industry have been complaining about this for decades, but investment is still quite low in the electric power industry, so that you don't see a lot of money being put into the development of new technology.

So we have these challenges like the one you were just mentioning, integration of renewable energy, and yet we're not seeing a big increase in investment to figure out how to contend with those challenges. At the same time...

LICHTMAN: Is this - are we talking about building a smarter grid?

SWEET: That's part of what's involved, yeah, building a smarter grid, one in which you integrate communications and computing technology with, you know, old-fashioned grid technology to make the grid much more controllable and much more responsive. Yes, that is part of it.

The other thing is that there has been a chronic shortage of skilled personnel in the grid at all levels, and I'm talking about everything from those people who go out and trim trees and, you know, keep the power lines in order, to the computing and software engineers who figure out how to control the grid on a grand scale.

And people started to complain in the 1990s that a lot of skilled people who might be working in these fields were getting siphoned off to the Internet and everything related to that. And you can see how that would be - it's easy to see intuitively how that would be a problem, that, you know, everybody - all these technicians who are out installing your high-speed connections for your home computing and your home video and so on who might otherwise be keeping your electrical lines in order.

So this is a - this has been a chronic underlying problem. There were big power outages in the west in the late '90s, and a lot of analysis was done under the direction of the Department of Energy on those outages, and this was what they found. They found this pattern of chronic underinvestment in the grid and labor, you might say labor shortages.

LICHTMAN: I have just about...

SWEET: (unintelligible) the grid.

LICHTMAN: ...30 seconds left but, I mean, are you saying that we might not have the number of personnel, skilled personnel to actually upgrade the grid if we wanted to?

SWEET: Yes. You know, under Obama's stimulus package, a lot of money was put into installing smart grid devices. But what we're seeing now is that, actually, we don't have really the personnel we need to make those devices yield the kinds of returns we want to see from them.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. That's about all we have time for. Thanks for joining me today.

SWEET: It was a pleasure being with you. Thank you.

LICHTMAN: William Sweet is managing editor of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter and the editor and lead contributor to IEEE Spectrum magazine's EnergyWise and newsletter and blog.

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