Aug 14, 2013 | Archives

Looking Back: The Ten Year Anniversary of the NE Blackout

by | Aug 14, 2013 | Archives

I was in China in Daya Bay in August 14th 2003, working with a Chinese Power Provider. I will never forget the email I received from a friend in the industry about abnormal conditions on the grid that morning. When I logged into the system via my VPN connection it was clear that the grid was not having a good day, little did I know at the time that more than 50 million people would be without power by the end of the day. Like a slow motion train wreck I watch from afar as the grid stability disappeared. I did not have the instrumentation access of much of the system, and was not where I could pick up the phone and call people to see if I could help, so all I could do was watch.

It was almost 3 weeks later when I returned from the trip to China, tired, sore and wondering. Wondering what had really happened, what had gone wrong and how we could prevent it from happening again. It was not going to be an easy task, information about the issues was being closely guarded, and many people who talked freely before the 14th of August were much less forthcoming after, the threat of lawsuits and losing jobs was in the wind. It took months for a final report to be written, a report that got at the root causes and made recommendations. Many of those recommendations have been implemented. But I still cringe when I see the “picture” of the Northeast all dark that was taken from the Shuttle according to Myth – and myth it is, Quebec never lost power, other areas were up and running before dark on a local level. There were islands of light that would have been seen from the shuttle even on the first night. I never want anyone to be able to have an excuse to fake another picture like that.

The advent of Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs) and the use of broadband harmonics sensors on the transmission grid were both beyond the scope of the original recommendations but within the spirit of them. System separation studies were also beyond the original recommendations, but again within the spirit of what was intended. These technologies are being implemented and the studies complete or being completed. The likelihood that an event will cascade this far again is less, much less than it was in 2003, but not gone.

Stepping back the question is what is next? For some it might be Microgrids, with the ability to run as islands, Hurricane Sandy brought that lesson home to many as an idea worth exploring, for others it is local storage. For still others is having an electric vehicle to plug into the house. But these are personal, local answers, not an answer to the larger picture. It would take millions of electric vehicles and tens of thousands of micro-grids to make this viable for 50 million plus people…and some people would still not be in a position to participate. No the answer is in better analytics, better sensor data, and more transmission links in the right areas to add warning and resiliency to the transmission grid. Contrary to one myth the 2003 blackout did not happen in seconds, the cascading failure did, but the blackout had hours of warning signs, warning signs that were missed for a wide range of reasons that will not be re-hashed here. It is sufficient to say that the strengthening of the control center systems and communications networks, combined with the PMUs and the supporting analytics will make it hard to ignore those warning signs when they come again.

The last 5 years have given the industry time to install equipment and learn, the downturn took the stress of the transmission grid, but with the slow rise in the economy, that lull is coming to an end and when it does the control rooms will be better equipped to handle the future. Yes, there is more to be done. Yes, it can happen again. No, it should not cause the same level of disruption. Yes, there is more work that can and should be done. However, the industry learned from 2003.

Happy 10th Anniversary, may the lights be with you.

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