Friday, August 15, 2003

The biggest blackout in U.S. history renewed a long-standing debate over the reliability of the nation’s electrical grid.

While utilities spent yesterday restoring power to million of homes and businesses, the head of an industry group conceded electric companies could do more to improve the aging electric grid, a collection of 157,810 miles of transmission lines and 5,000 power plants.

Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a nonprofit group of electric utilities formed in 1968 to reduce the likelihood of cascading blackouts, said the utilities could make better use of digital technology to use the grid more efficiently.

But Mr. Gent disagreed with comments from former Energy Department secretary and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that the United States has a “Third World electrical grid.”

“I take great issue with that. I think we have the finest grid in the world,” he said in a telephone conference call with reporters yesterday.

Mr. Richardson wasn’t the only one accusing the utility industry of operating an aging grid.

President Bush said the blackout is an indication that utilities must make changes in the grid.

“It’s a wake-up call,” the president said yesterday. “The grid needs to be modernized. The delivery systems need to be modernized. We’ve got an antiquated system.”

Mr. Gent said it still is not clear what caused the blackout, but utilities and regulators are focusing attention on a phenomenon in the Midwest.

About 300 megawatts of power headed for New York suddenly reversed course on the Lake Erie Loop, and within moments 600 megawatts of power were moving west. The electricity could have shifted course to respond to a loss of power in the system, and it appears a generator in Michigan shut down, said Tim Gallagher, director of standards for NERC.

The age of the electrical grid may not be as pressing an issue as the amount of energy transmitted across the network, said Bruce Wollenberg, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.

“The grid isn’t overloaded, but they need more capacity,” he said. “It needs more capacity so there’s more spare room to withstand outages under heavy loading conditions.”

Mark Lively, a member of the policy committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, said utilities operate the grid “near the red line.”

“Occasionally, when you’re doing that, it goes past the red line. But I don’t think we have a Third World system. I think we have a First World system,” Mr. Lively said.

The grid needs to be expanded by adding more transmission lines, specialists said.

Mr. Gent conceded that far less money has been spent to build new transmission lines than to add plants that generate power, and more power is racing across the same system. U.S. investment on transmission lines fell from $1.3 billion in 1990 to $270 million in 1998, according to figures in the president’s National Energy Policy.

Not only is the cost to build new transmission lines enormous, but companies that transmit energy make far less money than companies generating power or those selling it to consumers and businesses, said Abbas Akhil, principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, an Energy Department research facility in New Mexico.

Even if companies want to extend the grid by building more transmission lines, many people won’t let them because they don’t want power lines cutting across their property, Mr. Wollenberg said.

A federal official said the electrical grid must be updated.

“There’s no question we need to modernize the electrical system. We’re trying to operate a 21st-century power market that is vital to the information economy, but we’re trying to do this on the back of infrastructure and regulatory structures that are vestiges of the early 1900s,” said Bryan Lee, spokesman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The number of transmission lines may not be the only issue.

Because companies transmitting electricity have modest profits, there are concerns that they aren’t investing in regular maintenance of transmission lines to keep them in working order, Mr. Wollenberg said.

The growth of energy trading also has exploited the lack of capacity on the electrical grid, Mr. Akhil said, because some parts of the network aren’t equipped to handle the frequent transmissions of large amounts of power between energy traders.

“That does cause congestion. We know that,” Mr. Akhil said.

Mr. Gent said an investigation may not yield clues about the cause of the outage for months, but that there could be preliminary answers within weeks.

“The final verdict may be months away,” he said. “We will absolutely be able to tell where this happened and why it happened.”

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