SEEING THE LIGHT Converter transformer will strengthen transmission grid.
(Photo courtesy of ABB Inc.)

As the first anniversary of the 2003 Northeast blackout approaches, projects and programs to improve reliability are under way. But experts warn that the 46 recommendations of a joint U.S.-Canadian task force designed to improve system reliability fail to address what one source calls “the basic problem”of serious underinvestment in the grid.

“Make reliability standards mandatory and enforceable, with penalties for noncompliance,” reads the first recommendation of the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force, released in April (ENR 4/12 p. 12). But the provision to do that is embedded in President Bush’s comprehensive energy policy legislation, passed by the House but frozen in the Senate. And without mandatory reliability standards, utilities have little incentive to toe the line, says Aneesh Prabhu, an electric utility analyst at Standard & Poors.

Despite harsh criticism of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. in the blackout report, its stock price recovered from a “massive drop” in less than four weeks, Prabhu says. A downgrade of FirstEnergy’s corporate credit bonds last December resulted more from the utility’s troubled 925-MW Davis-Besse nuclear plant than from the blackout, he says. The state public utility commission swings a bigger stick on reliability issues. “If the commission says reliability is poor, you’ll see an immediate impact on stock prices,” Prabhu says.

The report’s recommendations focus on the “three Ts”—tools, training and trees, says Clark Gellings, vice president of energy delivery systems for the Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif. “Tools” includes software to observe the grid and procedures for control systems. Training of system operators and effective vegetation management are the other two solutions that receive attention in the reports.

But even if these problems are solved, the grid is “a disaster waiting to happen,” Gellings insists. Trimmed trees would not have prevented the blackout. “If the trees hadn’t gotten them, you would have had a voltage collapse,” he says.

“If 20 people push you one foot to a cliff, the last one pushes you over,” and that’s the one that gets the blame, Gellings says. The “basic problem” about which observers have complained for years remains underinvestment in the grid, he says. Investment today is at “the lowest level since the Great Depression.”

Alison Silverstein agrees. The senior energy policy advisor to the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a co-chair of the outage task force’s electric system working group, acknowledges the role of the three Ts. But, he says, “There’s a fourth T—transmission assets. As a long-term thing, we certainly need to get back to investment.”


Gellings also points to “systemic issues.” For example, “Where are incentives to put in voltage support?” he asks. The New York Power Authority recently installed a state-of-the-art, $48-million, convertible static compensator in its Marcy Substation, for which it “didn’t get a dime,” he notes.

“The way the laws are today, there’s no way you can charge anybody” for using a transmission line, says Robert McCorkle, project manager for ABB Inc., Raleigh, N.C. Even if utilities could recoup capital costs, many lack project-management staff. “I see nothing being done,” he says.

Lack of system visibility is another problem. Operators are unable to observe the system dynamically. Currently available energy-management-system software operates with a 50-second lag. On a grid that in effect operates at the speed of light, that is not providing timely information. “You can’t buy the technology yet,” says Gellings.

Illustrating the problem is a “cyber-timeline” from the blackout report detailing a sequence of communications and data-management breakdowns that left FirstEnergy operators blind to cascading events. In essence, it shows that a combination of human errors and software malfunctions can leave operators flying blind and...