Another blackout could occur, but safeguards are now in place


The group that oversees the nation's power grid says it has taken steps to guard against a repeat of last summer's multistate blackout but the system remains vulnerable as utilities contend with increased deregulation.

The North American Electric Reliability Council said yesterday that the nation's power supply should be adequate to meet peak electricity demand during the hot summer months. Demand is expected to grow by 2.5 percent compared with last summer's peak demand, NERC said in its annual summer assessment of electricity supply and demand.

"NERC and the industry have taken a number of key steps to improve reliability in the wake of last summer's blackout," said Michehl R. Gent, president and chief executive of NERC. "If all entities comply with NERC reliability standards, then there should be no uncontrolled blackouts."

Generating plants should produce adequate power for all regions, including Maryland, and transmission systems are expected to perform reliably, the group said. But it noted that increasing use of the grid to meet demand as power is sold long-distance in deregulated markets has also led to more volatile and unpredictable energy flow patterns, posing a big challenge for system operators.

Even in areas where generating plants and transmission lines produce enough power to meet customer demand, temporary shortages could occur if equipment breaks down or extremely hot weather persists, the report says.

In such cases, system operators might need to take steps to reduce demand, such as reducing voltage, appealing to consumers to conserve or even disconnecting customers, the report says. California and portions of New York City, Long Island and southwestern Connecticut could be especially vulnerable to tight electric supplies in extreme conditions, the report says.

For the Mid-Atlantic Area Council, the regional reliability council that includes Maryland, summer demand is projected at 56,886 megawatts, with a supply of 68,666 megawatts, leaving a reserve of 12,000 megawatts, the report shows. That reserve is ample to cover any emergencies, such as extremely hot weather or power plants going out of service, said Bruce M. Balmat, executive director of the Electric Standards Division of PJM, the independent system operator that oversees the grid in Maryland and other states. The region has seen an increase in its power supply of more than 4,000 megawatts as companies or utilities have added generation plants, Balmat said.

"Reliability-wise, we're in good shape," he said. "Transmission systems are adequate to deliver all the energy from where it's generated to the customers that need it."

For consumers served by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., "resources are adequate to meet demand," said Stephen Woerner, manager of electric system operations and planning for BGE.

He said demand in BGE's service area is expected to exceed that of last summer by 1.6 percent, an increase that's coming from additional customers as well as increased usage per customer.

Paul Oakley, executive director of the Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Energy, which supports mandatory reliability standards currently stalled in Congress, said he believes that NERC's assessment is based on having "no hiccups in the system."

"My gut feeling is the system is so strained that if anything happens wrong, it's very likely we're going to have blackouts, whether someone doesn't follow guidelines ... or whether the system infrastructure itself breaks down for any reason," he said.

"Our physical infrastructure is strained to the limit, as long as everyone does everything right, it may well hold together, but it's like holding it together with paper clips and Scotch tape."

Jone-Lin Wang, director of North American power for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said she agrees with NERC that problems are unlikely under normal conditions, or even with weather extremes. The potential for problems arises not from lack of electricity, she said, but in getting it to the areas that need it.

"We don't expect any problems this summer for most of the country, but multiple problems such as a heat wave coupled with equipment malfunctions may cause temporary problems for some local areas," she said. "On the generation side, the country as a whole is well supplied, and most regions are oversupplied with generation capacity. On the transmission side, after the blackout ... we've made improvements, but the possibility of human error is always there."

Human error played a key role in the August blackout, according to a joint U.S./Canada task force that investigated the cause of the huge outage that left 50 million people without power.

An interim task force report last November blamed a constellation of failures at Ohio's FirstEnergy Corp. as the principal trigger. It pointed to the loss of three high-voltage transmission lines in northern Ohio and to a failure of FirstEnergy operators to recognize and contain the problem.

In February, NERC approved 14 recommendations designed to improve reliability of the electric system. Last month, the U.S./Canada task force's final report echoed some of the NERC recommendations, including setting mandatory rules for utilities.

In the interim, NERC has taken a number of steps to ensure reliability going into the summer. "Most importantly, NERC is targeting the direct causes of the blackout identified by both NERC and the U.S./Canada task force and ensuring that they are corrected prior to this summer," yesterday's report says.

NERC said it has reviewed remediation plans from FirstEnergy, the Midwest ISO, and PJM, the grid operator for a region that includes Maryland. NERC had asked PJM to improve communication procedures with neighboring systems to enhance coordination in case of system overloads.

Each of those companies must show it has those plans in place by June 30. NERC is also conducting "reliability readiness" audits for all regions, with 20 of the largest control areas to be completed by June 30. In addition, NERC has changed its operating policies to clarify the functions of reliability coordinators.

Even with the mandatory standards hung up in Congress, David Nevius, a senior vice president at NERC, said he feels confident that utilities will pay greater attention to adhering to the voluntary standards governing the use of the transmission grid, in light of the blackout.

"There is heightened awareness on the need to comply," Nevius said. "The industry is under a microscope right now, and we're confident folks are giving special attention to compliance."

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