Keeping the Lights on Is Becoming Quite a Chore

You may recall that in last month’s “From the Editor” column, I wrote about the importance of a well-maintained T&D infrastructure. I mentioned an infrastructure analysis performed by AMR Research that predicted widespread electric power disruptions in North America during the next five years. So far, this prediction is accurate.

Just a few weeks ago, a major power outage occurred in Detroit-it was reported to be the biggest power outage in the city’s history. The outage was not the fault of the city’s major energy supplier, Detroit Edison, but instead it was blamed on the Detroit Public Lighting Department. This city-owned and operated utility provides electric service to most of the city’s buildings and structures, including Detroit’s street lights and traffic lights, police precincts and fire stations, public housing, schools and universities, main government office buildings as well as a hospital and the Detroit City Airport. The outage trapped passengers on the downtown elevated rail system, it left motorists to fend for themselves at major intersections where traffic lights were out, it even left 41 second-graders trapped in the Detroit Historical Museum’s basement for a short time. To make matters worse, since Detroit Edison’s customers were unaffected, buildings that were lit and cool surrounded buildings with no lights or air-conditioning.

An article that appeared the day after the outage in the Detroit Free Press, one of Detroit’s daily newspapers, reported that Detroit’s mayor, Dennis Archer, said the failure was not a result of substandard equipment or negligence. However, the same article reported that Detroit Edison spokesman Scott Simons said the problem was due to Detroit Public Lighting Department equipment failure.

Several reports said the problem began when one of three tie-lines feeding the Public Lighting Department failed because of a problem with the city agency’s equipment. Detroit Edison officials said they warned the city to scale back power usage after the first tie-line failed. Although the first tie-line was being repaired and the city was trying to limit consumption, neither occurred quickly enough. Temperatures climbed, causing electricity consumption to increase and the second cable failed. The remaining third cable could not handle the load and shut down due to overload.

According to an Associated Press report, Archer called the outage “a tremendous inconvenience” but said it was not man-made. “It was something that just occurred,” he said.

While some folks may actually buy that statement, I’m not one of them. The Public Lighting Department’s equipment is reported to be old. Old equipment coupled with increases in electricity consumption, especially in the summer months, seem to be fairly common throughout the United States. It is becoming increasingly common for this combination to result in major power outages. In my opinion, such a combination is man-made; it is not something that just occurs. At some point the decision was made to invest in something other than the T&D infrastructure.

Unfortunately for Detroit, its system’s failure was the first to make headlines this summer. However, I will be surprised if Detroit is the only city to experience such an event. I hate to be a naysayer, but I believe events such as this will continue to occur until all utilities, including investor-owned, municipals and rural co-operatives, make the investments necessary to improve and upgrade their infrastructures to meet increasing T&D system demands.

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