Two Years After Big Blackout, Is Power Grid Fixed?

Who turned out the lights out, and what's being done about it? Two years ago this weekend, the biggest blackout in U.S. history struck parts of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada, knocking out power to millions of Americans. Karen Grigsby Bates looks at what's been done since to fix the problems that led up to the blackout.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the summer camp of boyhood dreams turns out to be a somewhat more icky reality.

First, this. It's two years since a huge blackout brought New York, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland and almost all of the country in between to a halt. A transmission line failure in Ohio caused the massive power failure. Since then, a lot of people have been working to avoid a repeat of that blackout. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

August 14th, 2003: It was lights out, literally, for a big swath of the country. In a hotter-than-usual summer, air conditioners were humming, fans were whirring and, suddenly, everything stopped in many parts of the East Coast and Midwest, as this report from a New York City transit worker indicates.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, all trains in New York state plus Eastern seaboard is completely dead.

Unidentified Woman #2: Are the airports closed?

Unidentified Woman #3: Are there any buses?

Unidentified Woman #1: The airports are closed, also.

BATES: A spike in electricity use in Ohio created a domino effect in other states. The backup lines designed to provide extra power became overloaded, and as each grid tried to get the backup electricity it needed from the next stop on the lines, grid after grid went dark. The resulting chaos stranded office workers in high-rises in places like New York, Toronto and Cleveland. Traffic became a nightmare everywhere as signals went out, electric-powered pumps at gas stations failed and ice became a precious commodity everywhere as people tried to save the contents of their freezers.

In New York, there was the added anxiety that the blackout might be the first wave of another terrorist attack. At a hastily called press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly addressed city residents to allay that fear.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): The first thing that everybody should do is to understand that there is no evidence of any terrorism whatsoever.

BATES: Within hours of the blackout, politicians in Canada and the United States were blaming each other for the power failure, and everyone was demanding answers, although no one could pinpoint the source at the time. It turned out that the initial answer was reassuringly mundane. According to Maria Ilic, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who follows the nation's electricity grid, the blackout was a preventable failure of the system.

Professor MARIA ILIC (Carnegie Mellon University) The system operator in Ohio, FirstEnergy, did not have its equipment, monitoring equipment, working, so they did not know that these wires failed.

BATES: Immediately, policy-makers called for corrections to the system to avoid another huge failure, but it was slow going. David Garman, the undersecretary of Energy, says the new energy bill President Bush signed earlier this week has provisions designed to help forestall another blackout.

Mr. DAVID GARMAN (Undersecretary of Energy): There's no silver bullet; there's no single technology or no single approach. What the bill does, really, is, first of all, require mandatory reliability standards. It also provides for incentive-based rates that promotes new investment in transmission.

BATES: And, says Garman, Americans need to realize that just as electricity isn't free, neither is its maintenance.

Mr. GARMAN: Somebody has to make money at keeping the transmission grid up and running.

BATES: The new energy bill features funds for a $217 million high-voltage transmission line to be built underground in New England. This will protect the lines from trees, ice storms and other natural interruptions.

More controversially, the bill gives the federal government much more authority to become involved in disputes over where transmission lines can go. Federal power to quickly declare the right of eminent domain means necessary power stations and lines could be built sooner without being tied up for years in court battles.

In the end, though, the complicated web of power grids is only as good as the humans who monitor it, says Carnegie Mellon's Maria Ilic. She says right now human operators don't have a variety of worse-case scenarios available to them ahead of time before they're hit with a crisis.

Prof. ILIC: We don't have procedures in place for adjusting individual control areas to an abnormal situation automatically. If the operator is presented by sort of uncontrolled flows across his control area, he doesn't have an offline preready recipe how to adjust.

BATES: And even if those things are eventually fixed, says Energy Undersecretary Garman, we shouldn't expect blackouts to go the way of the gas lamp.

Mr. GARMAN: We will always have blackouts, and there's nothing that we can do to ensure 100 percent reliability. But what we won't to do is to limit the frequency, scope and duration of any blackout we might find in the future.

BATES: And if that saves you just once from walking up 45 flights of stairs during a power failure, maybe it's worth it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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