final blackout report is essential summer reading

By Steven Brown

In April, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force released its final report on the Aug. 14 blackout. The document, which weighs in at a healthy 228 pages, is available at for those of you who have not yet completed your summer reading lists.

One of the report’s main themes is that the Aug. 14 blackout was preventable. The task force noted numerous causes and factors contributing to the blackout, including a failure to maintain adequate reactive power support, a failure to ensure operation within secure limits, inadequate vegetation management, inadequate operator training, a failure to identify and communicate emergency conditions, and inadequate regional visibility of the bulk power system.

Chapter 10 of the task force report contains 46 recommendations to prevent or minimize the scope of future blackouts. I would encourage readers to examine the entire list of recommendations; here, I would like to highlight a few that seem most integral.

Recommendation No. 1 from the task force report will likely be one of the more hotly debated, but seems to be the most important of the 46. The recommendation-to “make reliability standards mandatory and enforceable, with penalties for noncompliance”-would require action by the U.S. Congress, Canadian governmental agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Council. Given the number of high-level entities involved, this recommendation could be the most laborious to enact, but it is vital to ensuring future reliability of the bulk power system. Without mandatory reliability standards and some body to oversee enforcement of those standards, the power industry essentially has a legislative body with no judicial body to back it up.

Recommendation No. 4 calls for a clarification “that prudent expenditures and investments for bulk system reliability will be recoverable through transmission rates.” The task force report didn’t specify two decades of under-investment in the power delivery system as a factor contributing to the blackout, but I will. However, I’ll stop short of blaming the lack of investment on individual utilities or transmission-owning entities. Without some clear assurance that investment in power delivery is recoverable, the under-investment is likely to continue. Those that would invest money to improve the system must be assured an adequate return.

Several recommendations-including Nos. 13, 21, 22, 26 and 28-call for expanded research into and improved use of specific tools and technologies, such as real-time tools for operators, communications systems, system protection, time-synchronized data recorders and system modeling tools. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 released in early February, President Bush requested $90.88 million for the Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution, the bulk of which was to be used for research and development in a number of technologies directly related to the improvement of bulk power reliability. This is a step in the right direction. I’ve conducted a number of interviews with noted reliability experts since Aug. 14, and when asked how we can lessen the likelihood of future cascading outages, greater investment in research and development is a common and high-ranking answer. A number of technologies are already in existence that can help ensure greater reliability of the bulk power system. Further investment in existing technologies and emerging technologies is integral to power reliability.

These, and a number of the other 46 recommendations, seem so obvious as to be un-debatable. Recommendation No. 15, for example, calls for a correction of the blackout’s main causes; seems straight-forward enough. Find the problem and fix it. However, it’s a rare occurrence that any recommendation-no matter how obviously correct- doesn’t have an opponent somewhere. It will be interesting to see what comes of the task force recommendations. For the sake of the bulk power system and U.S. and Canadian power customers, let’s hope the majority of these recommendations can be enacted.

Almost as long-awaited as the final blackout report, Electric Light & Power’s new look debuts with this issue. It’s actually a return to an “old” look, as we’ve gone back to the standard-sized issue that readers enjoyed for the first 50-plus years of EL&P’s existence. We hope you’ll enjoy this old/new design, and I welcome your comments on it, as well as any subject we cover in this issue and future issues of EL&P.


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