(Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

A system designed after an unprecedented 1965 blackout to assure electric reliability worked reasonably well for 37 years. On Aug. 14, it failed. As the lights came back on, officials already were probing the Northeast Blackout of 2003 and reliability again was becoming a key national priority.

The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) was established after the 1965 Northeast blackout as a voluntary association of utilities. Members agree to follow common procedures to prevent cascading failures. "Either somebody broke the rules or we don’t have the right rules in place," says Michehl Gent, NERC president. The cascade of outages across the regions worries him. "That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen."

PJM, the Valley Forge, Pa.-based regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity in seven states and the District of Columbia, was able to stop the cascading blackout near its borders with New York and Ohio with only a minimal service outage.

At 4:11 p.m., PJM’s equipment detected the grid disturbance as it rolled into its operating area and opened the circuit breakers to block it. "Nine seconds later our service area was stable," says Ray Dotter, PJM spokesman. Some service was disrupted, but all service was restored by noon Friday. "Now we’re looking at what the equipment did, what it was supposed to do and what exactly happened," Dotter says.

PJM is responsible for the reliability of service in the largest centrally dispatched control area in the U.S. It coordinates the movement of electricity in all or parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. "Our standards are often more stringent than the national standards set by NERC," says Dotter. The company has the ability to identify transmission needs and order any of its 245 transmission company members to make improvements to the system. It recently approved $800 million in upgrades in the grid as part of its four-year regional transmission expansion plan.

PJM’s success is sure to be contrasted with the failure of its neighbors to contain the problem as the investigations now being launched move forward.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was scheduled to meet with Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal on Aug. 20 in Detroit in the first formal meeting of a task force on the blackout. Abraham says that the U.S. already has sent DOE investigators to collect information at the Independent System Operators, NERC and utilities in the area hit by the outage. He says the task force would move "as quickly as possible," but he has not set a deadline or target for completing the investigation.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) says his committee will investigate the blackout and plans a hearing when Congress returns from its August recess.

Abraham also says NERC has dropped plans to do a probe of its own and instead will work with the U.S-Canadian effort. "We will use all the resources at our disposal," including DOE’s national laboratories, says Abraham. He says "hundreds" of people will be involved and he expects the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to play a role.

Conditions in the heavily urban and populous Northeast may require extra care from grid administrators. William Reinke, executive director of the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council, one of NERC’s 10 component reliability councils, says his region is less vulnerable to blackouts because "we don’t have unique population pockets and we don’t have problems getting supplies to cities. We don’t have natural geographic bottlenecks like the Great Lakes or Rocky Mountains." Even so, the Southeast spent $1 billion last year and will spend in excess of $1 billion a year through 2007 on new transmission lines. The spending is for load growth, bulk system enhancement and to hook up new merchant generation, says Reinke.

Lawmakers are using the blackout to push for passage of energy legislation. President Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans are arguing for a comprehensive measure, while some Democrats are suggesting splitting off electricity reliability provisions as a separate bill. A House-Senate conference on an omnibus energy bill is scheduled to begin in September.

Bush says that Senate energy committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) "can get the conference up and running in 20 days." Bush says that Domenici and Tauzin are "very confident they’ll have mandatory reliability standards in the energy bill." He adds, "There will be incentives in the new bill to encourage investment in energy infrastructure."

The mandatory reliability standards and infrastructure incentives are the administration’s top two priorities for the electricity portion of the energy measure, says Abraham. But the House Energy and Commerce panel’s senior Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, says Congress may need to pass a stand-alone electricity reliability bill.

"We may need to put targeted reliability legislation on the fast track, and not let it get bogged down in the broader energy bill now going to conference," Dingell explains.

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