Five years after the worst blackout in North American history, the largest power providers say the problems that turned out the lights on 50 million people have mostly been fixed.
That’s not to say the country has stepped back from the brink. Potentially bigger and more damaging outages could be on the way.
Excess capacity in the system is shrinking, and construction, as well as plans for new plants, has slowed as costs to build and operate them have soared.
At the same time, it is estimated that electricity use will increase 29 percent between 2006 to 2030 - much of it driven by residential growth, according to a government report issued in June.
“I’m really not a Chicken Little player, but I worry that no one seems to be focusing in on this,” said Michael Morris, chairman, president and chief executive of American Electric Power Co. Inc., which runs the nation’s largest electricity transmission system.
Mr. Morris said massive outages this year in South Africa, which forced gold, diamond and platinum mines to stop production for five days, should serve as a warning to the United States.
Industry experts back Mr. Morris and say there is even more resistance to building new plants due to the debate over climate change and opposition to new transmission lines.
“The level of excess capacity has shrunk down in the last few years to a level barely within the planning toleration of the industry,” said Marc Chupka, a principal with the Brattle Group, an energy consultant.
The blackout five years ago shut off power to vast swaths of the Northeast and Midwest for as much as four days. Rolling blackouts continued in Ontario for a week.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost access to tap water for days in Ohio, and the mayor of Cleveland accused shop owners of gouging people in need of drinking water.
Millions of New Yorkers, with subways shut down and office towers darkened, left the city on foot.
A U.S.-Canadian government task force largely blamed Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. for allowing a local power failure near Cleveland to cascade to the East Coast and into Canada.
Industry experts say changes have been made to protect against a similar outage that caused as much as $10 billion in damages to the U.S. economy.
But Mr. Morris fears that in 10 to 20 years there may be greater blackouts as demand surpasses supply.
“Just think of the economic hardship that would render,” he said.
Rick Sergel, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. of Princeton, N.J., the agency that oversees the nation’s power grid, agrees with Mr. Morris.
“We’re to the point where we need every possible resource: renewables, demand response and energy efficiency, nuclear, clean coal - you name it, we need it,” he said. “And we especially need the transmission lines that will bring the power generated by these new resources to consumers.”
But even as Americans demand more power to feed flat-screen TVs, video games, surround-sound systems and appliances, there is broad opposition to infrastructure that experts say is needed, and the costs are only going up.
Construction of coal-fired generating plants has almost stopped and new nuclear plants are years away, if they are approved at all, said Arshad Mansoor, vice president of power delivery and utilization for the Electric Power Research Institute. Better efficiency will only go so far, he said.
“If you don’t have generation and transmission … something has to give,” he said, and that could be a blackout or brownout.
AEP recently announced efforts to expand the nation’s transmission system. It will partner with Duke Energy in a $1 billion proposal to build 240 miles of transmission lines. Similar deals have been announced in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and West Virginia to Maryland, some including the use of wind power.
Yet infrastructure projects take a lot of time. AEP announced a plan for a transmission line in West Virginia and Virginia in 1990 that was not finished until last year, due mostly to the regulatory approval process.
Power plants are an even bigger problem, Mr. Morris said, particularly for coal and nuclear power. In Kansas, for example, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has blocked plans for two coal-fired power plants.
In conjunction with the anniversary of the blackout, FirstEnergy announced several technological improvements and greater efforts to keep its 11,000 miles of high transmission lines free of trees.
A tree brushed a power line in Ohio in 2003, according to the task force report, setting off cascading outages.
The task force also blamed poorly trained grid managers, a lack of communication among power providers. Utilities have spent millions on improvements.
“The event was a major crisis and did probably force something to happen that would have otherwise not happened,” Larry Makovich, vice president/senior power adviser for Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.
But Mr. Morris sees a potentially dire situation ahead, including power rationing that occurred in South Africa when that nation, on a 14-year growth spurt following the end of apartheid, virtually turned itself off.
“It would ruin the economy,” Mr. Morris said.
Industry experts say it is easy for those in Washington and across the country to forget what happened five years ago, which they say will occur again on a grander scale if nothing is done.
Mr. Makovich said the U.S. had its own warning five years ago.
“It’s easy to take the power infrastructure for granted until something goes wrong,” he said.