Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Great Blackout

The great blackout of August 14 was arguably the costliest event in the history of the North American electricity sector. If there is a silver lining to the crisis -- which left 40 million people in t...

October 1, 2003   By George Davies, ACRES

The great blackout of August 14 was arguably the costliest event in the history of the North American electricity sector. If there is a silver lining to the crisis — which left 40 million people in the northeastern United States and Canada without power, sometimes for days — it is that the massive failure may stimulate bureaucratic, political and business action.

Since the blackout, there has been much speculation in the media about the immediate and contributing causes. Regarding contributing causes, finger pointing has focused on the role of deregulation, the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass energy bills, and the unbundling of utilities. There have also been criticisms about the inadequate powers of regulators, inadequate investments in transmission, the absence of mandatory performance standards and the failure of communication systems to keep pace with requirements.

The immediate cause that most observers point to is the failure of a generating station in Ohio at a time when the eastern power systems, both generation and wires, were operating close to maximum capabilities. The outage triggered a reverse flow of power, which tripped one transmission line, leading to successive overloading and tripping of multiple transmission circuits into the Toledo-Cleveland-Detroit load pocket.

As supply into the Toledo-Cleveland-Detroit subsystem collapsed, power redistribution throughout the Eastern Interconnection led to the system being destabilized, with a resulting loss of massive quantities of generation. Some of the systems that relied on electronic interventions were spared; a few of those that relied on human intervention were able to detach from the interconnected system and avoided blackouts. However, millions of people were affected as the surge tripped system transmission lines and generators.*

In some areas, such as much of Ontario, it took over a week for full electricity service to be restored. The costs of the associated business disruption are estimated in the billions of dollars. Besides the official U.S.-Canada Task Force investigation, dozens of studies have been launched with the aim of reviewing systems and preventing a recurrence of the event, or for political or litigation defence.

The Ontario system was one of the hardest hit, slowest to come back, and is the focus of several reviews, both technical and political. Ontario observers have pointed to causes similar to those cited above for the U.S.: the weaknesses of the transmission system due to under-investment, and experiments in deregulation that have gone awry. They cite a failure of oversight by the Independent Electricity Market Operator, poor communication systems with neighbouring grids and an absence of adequate planning. They say there is not enough generation supply, as well as an over reliance on CANDU nuclear technology, which slowed the restoration of service. It also took longer than the industry standard times to return some Ontario Power Generation thermal plants to full production. The critics say there is an inadequate roll-out of distributed generation and an over-dependence on monolithic central utilities for decision-making and supply. Results of studies currently under way will help quell the contradictory and uniformed speculation on Ontario’s particular problems.

Prognosis and opportunity

Although the final analyses of the causes and consequences of the August 14 blackout will be some time in coming, it has been almost universally accepted that certain changes need to be made. Key among these is the need for mandatory reliability standards across the North American continent. The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), in association with its 10 regional councils, has developed reliability standards related to the planning, design and operation of transmission systems, and is encouraging every transmission facility operator and independent system operator on the continent to abide by them. Legislation is before the U.S. Congress to make the standards and auditing processes mandatory, enforceable, more stringent and regimented, and additional measures and continuous monitoring requirements will be established. Enforcement will mean utilities have to undertake massive investment in generation and transmission, which some observers estimate could be valued at upwards of $50 billion.

Since governments have taken a lead during this crisis, and will now play a central role in avoiding the next crisis, the result may be a return to the central planning of power systems. The indisputable outcome will be massive new investment in transmission, generation and operations.

Some critical bottlenecks in the North American transmission grid will likely be addressed through major new investment programs during the next 2-4 years. These troublespots include serious transmission deficiencies in southern Connecticut, in the mid-West, and to a lesser extent in Texas.

Ontario can be expected to accelerate efforts to connect its grid to Manitoba and Quebec and will likely sign contracts for new supply with both provinces, and possibly with Newfoundland. These initiatives will give rise to new construction, e.g. at the Conawapa hydroelectric development in northern Manitoba. Ontario can be expected to accelerate the return to service of the remaining two units at the Bruce nuclear plant and to make an early start on the Beck tunnel at Niagara Falls. It will likely also begin upgrading the transmission system, and will sponsor new distributed generation plants. There will be numerous opportunities for the Canadian consulting engineering industry to help in the assessment, design and construction management stages of all these projects.

George Davies is president of Acres Management Consulting and vice president of Acres International of Oakville, Ont.

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