Thoughts on the Florida Blackout

Steven Brown, editor in chief

Reflecting on the Florida blackout of Feb. 26, two thoughts comes to mind. One: Blackouts are inevitable. Two: We’re probably getting better at handling them.

When I interviewed Damir Novosel–then with KEMA, now with InfraSource–shortly after the Northeast blackout of 2003, he stressed that cascading outages are essentially statistical inevitabilities. He noted that cascading outages result from multiple low-probability events occurring in conjunction with one another.

“It sounds like bad luck, but it’s purely statistical,” Novosel said. “It may not happen tomorrow. It may not happen next month or next year, but it will happen. As a matter of statistics, these low-probability events will eventually happen in parallel.”

The Florida blackout is a good example of parallel occurrence of low-probability events. In this case, it appears three things happened: a switch at an FPL substation malfunctioned, a fault occurred and–this is the truly low-probability event–an FPL technician had disabled two levels of relay protection in trying to diagnose the problem with the switch. The employee’s actions were contrary to FPL’s (and probably every other utility’s) standard procedures.

As long as human action has a role in the power system–and one would assume it always will no matter how highly automated the system becomes–there will be room for this type of error.

However, comparing this blackout to the Northeast blackout gives one hope that we’re getting better at dealing with wide-scale outages. It’s obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout affected about 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada, and power wasn’t fully restored until Aug. 16. In contrast, power was restored to most Florida customers within a few hours of the Feb. 26 blackout.

Also, a major problem in the aftermath of the 2003 blackout was post-mortem analysis. According to NERC, “A valuable lesson from the August 14 blackout is the importance of having time-synchronized system data recorders. NERC investigators labored over thousands of data items to synchronize the sequence of events. ” That process would have been significantly improved ” if there had been a sufficient number of synchronized data recording devices.”

Compare that to NERC CEO Rick Sergel’s comments after the recent Florida blackout: “” information collected by new monitoring technologies, called “Ëœsynchro-phasors,’ will enable our teams to analyze yesterday’s outages more quickly than in the past. This new technology is like the “ËœMRI’ of bulk power systems.”

Coincidentally enough, our main feature in this issue is about technologies to mitigate blackouts, and phasor measurement is one of them.

On another note, if you haven’t had a chance to check out our latest podcast, I’d encourage you to do so. In early March, we posted episode 9 of “Currents: The Energy News Podcast.” The focus of that podcast is “Building tomorrow’s smart grid today.” It features Jeff Sterba of PNM Resources, Don Cortez of CenterPoint Energy and former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham giving their points of view on how technology can help us respond to the power industry’s biggest challenges. It’s about a 20-minute feature, and you can either listen to it through our website at www.utilityautomation.com (click the “Currents Podcast” button toward the top of the page), or you can download it and listen to it at your leisure. These three men have a lot of interesting things to say about the grid’s current state and the promise of tomorrow’s smart grid. Please give it a listen and drop me a line to let me know what you think at StevenB@pennwell.com.

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