Extreme weather is putting America’s power grid to the test, with a yearlong run of violent storms and record heat battering a system built for fairer skies.
As Ohio and the eastern U.S. struggle to recover from the June 29 derecho, energy officials are acknowledging climate change as a force that finally has to be reckoned with — even as concern grows about other threats that can set off catastrophic blackouts.
Winter storms, chains of heat waves and the derecho — a thunderstorm with straight-line winds that snapped electrical transmission towers and brought down power poles — have forced the climate change issue and electric supply vulnerability to the top of an already daunting list of blackout triggers. Those threats range from computer-hacking cyberterrorists to solar flares, utility mistakes and plain bad luck.
Regulators in the U.S. hope to avoid the kind of cascading grid failure that hit India in late July, leaving some 600 million people — 10 percent of the world’s population — without power. Miners were trapped underground. Trains shut down. Unimaginable traffic snarls popped up across the country. India’s image as a rising economic power was cast in darkness.
A major blackout in hyper-wired America also would have crippling consequences, with some experts predicting economic losses up to $180 billion.
“This is really the fundamental linchpin for everything in our society, our economy, our quality of life,” said Massoud Amin, a University of Minnesota professor and longtime electricity industry analyst and consultant. “By deferring infrastructure upgrades, we are basically increasing the risk for the whole system.”
In America, extreme weather is driving the discussion.
Terry Boston, president of the PJM bulk electricity management grid that serves 60 million residents in parts of 13 states, including Ohio, said doubts are growing about forecasts based on long-term weather trends, typically 30-year averages. PJM experts, he said, soon could factor climate change and extreme events into their planning models for delivering power — and for restoring it when big storms turn off the lights.
“I cannot think of any year in my career with more challenges,” Boston said.
“With the number of events and frequency of extreme events, we’re saying, ‘Hey, maybe we need to use something closer to the here and now,’” he said. “I think that there’s a high probability that we will do that.”
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said there’s urgency in moving forward quickly.
“Blackouts and brownouts already cost our economy tens of billions of dollars a year, and we risk ever more serious consequences if we continue to rely on outdated and inflexible infrastructure,” Chu recently told a Congressional committee.
America’s grid is a diverse amalgamation of giant turbines in hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, coal-fired plants, windmills and solar panels — all of which feed electricity into more than 200,000 miles of high voltage wire, and more than 1 million miles of local and regional distribution lines.
Ten regional grid operators — such as PJM — control the continuous flow of electricity, some of it suspended from aging towers and poles.
The grid operators manage 5,800 regulated — and unregulated — electric utilities, which pump juice into the system from more than 15,000 generating units. Grid operators are overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and national and regional reliability organizations, but grid operators can’t fully control utilities in their regions because of patchwork regulations across America.
“There are a lot of people working on it, a lot of entities, but nobody’s in charge, and in particular nobody’s in charge of, say, the federal system or the municipal system or the cooperatives,” said Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “Organizationally, we’re not up to the scale of the problem.”
And the problem is huge.
In 2011, the American Society of Civil Engineers predicted a $107 billion shortfall in national electric system investment by 2020, and a $732 billion gap by 2040.
In addition to lacking a unified voice for upgrading the grid, Schmalensee said, jurisdictional disputes could lead to more power failures. He thinks the country needs a national authority — “as opposed to some agency or state commission” — setting standards in different geographic regions.
Outcry after storm
Utility industry officials accepted, “almost as a given,” the public outcry and demand for reforms after destructive windstorms slammed the Midwest and Eastern U.S. on June 29. Political leaders branded delays in restoring service “unacceptable,” citing business losses and human suffering as constituents were stranded in life-threatening summer heat.
Zanesville’s Delmar Thomas was one of the last residents to get power back in July and was forced to spend much of each of his days locked into a routine.
“It’s been very hard, but we’ve managed to maintain our sanity so far,” Thomas said more than a week after the derecho hit. “We go out to the mall until it closes at 9 (p.m.), then we might go get a bite to eat, then we come home and sit on the front porch for a while before going to bed.”
“The frustration among customers is enormous,” said Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents shareholder-owned utilities such as American Electric Power and FirstEnergy Corp.
And frustration is building at the same time peak power loads are increasing, with PJM predicting a 14.7 percent power usage jump during summers between 2012 and 2022.
PJM officials said this summer’s peak demand had exceeded the organization’s 2012 forecast by about 1.9 percent, with weeks of hot weather still ahead.
“We used to think of climate change impacts as in the future and abstract. Those effects are here now,” said Peter Fox-Penner, author of “Smart Power,” a 2011 book looking at the challenges the electric grid faces.
Hottest year ever
America is on track for its hottest year ever in 2012, and six of the 10 hottest years since record-keeping began have occurred since 1998.
Art DeGaetano, director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center in New York, said the brutal heat of 2012 “might be what we consider a normal event in 50 or 60 or 70 years.”
Powerful storms and prolonged heat waves in the past year have brought hardship and economic losses across America. To name just a few:
» An unusually wide band of violent thunderstorms tore across 700 miles of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic in late June, leaving 4.3 million people without power as an oppressive heat wave gripped much of the nation. The derecho carried winds as high as 91 mph and left a wake of destruction from Indiana, through Ohio and on to New Jersey. Crews from Alabama rushed in to resurrect power lines in Central Ohio.
» August 2011′s Tropical Storm Irene and a late-October snowfall clobbered New England and parts of the Northeast, with tens of thousands of power lines, poles and towers either washed out by flooding or dropped by falling trees or heavy snow. Millions were left in the dark for up to two weeks.
» A hot-weather blackout in September 2011, caused by utility worker errors, affected 2.7 million people in parts of Arizona, southern California and northern Mexico.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, House and Senate panels have in the past year focused on threats to the grid from shadowy Internet cyberattackers who could use computer viruses and electronic stealth to shut down power plants, knock grids out of sync and cripple transmission networks.
“What we’re talking about is the very real possibility of an intentional attack by a terrorist group or a nation that is designed to bring down the electrical grid of a major part of the United States,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “We’ve had repeated warnings from national security leaders that such an attack is not only possible, but likely.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, another member of the energy and natural resources committee, did not respond to questions by deadline.
This spring, the national group responsible for the reliability of the nation’s “bulk” power system released dozens of recommendations for dealing with “severe impact” events such as a coordinated physical attack or cyberattack on transmission systems, or massive Earth-directed flare of energy from the sun.
“The electricity industry has much less experience with planning for and responding to high-impact events that have a low probability of occurring,” the North American Electric Reliability Council said in its report. A cyberattack or magnetic storm from a solar flare “could cause service disruptions lasting weeks, months and perhaps years — well beyond the industry’s experience over the past 100 years of reliable operation.”
Extremely rare events, the report said, cannot be ignored. A major solar flare in 1989 blacked out parts of Ontario, Canada, and damaged equipment in the U.S.
Utilities already are spending heavily on transmission and distribution networks, with investor-owned companies — some 70 percent of the system — putting up $26.9 billion in 2010 alone.
Yet pressures are mounting for far greater spending on additions and upgrades to transmission and distribution lines to reduce demand, as well as to bury lines.
Underground lines are cost prohibitive, FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said.
FirstEnergy, the parent company of Ohio Edison, spends millions maintaining and upgrading their system every year, he said.
“Whether you had equipment that was older or equipment that was installed the day before, with the damage we saw, those outages were still going to occur,” he said referring to the aftermath of this summer’s high-wind storms.
In 2003, after a sagging power line touched a tree in FirstEnergy territory and set off a blackout that affected 50 million people, a joint task force formed by the U.S. and Canada launched a three-month investigation and recommended dozens of reforms to boost grid reliability standards.
Congress followed up that task force effort in 2005 with a vote that led to the revamping of a weaker industry oversight group. The result was the creation of North American Electric Reliability Corp., an agency with the power to set reliability standards and fine utilities that violate orders.
“With regard to future blackouts, industry is doing more today than any other time in history,” said Vamsi Chadalavada, executive vice president and chief operating officer of northeast grid operator ISO New England. “Mandatory standards have been adopted all the way from planning to how the grid is maintained and operated.”
Yet NERC’s own data from 1984 to 2006 shows the number of blackouts annually hovering between 15 and 20 every year since 1999.
“From these data the frequency of large blackouts does not appear to be decreasing in time,” Paul Hines, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Vermont, wrote in a trade journal. “While technology and policy improvements have facilitated major reliability improvements in other network systems, such as air traffic control, these changes have not resulted in an observable decrease in the frequency of large blackouts.”
Hines’ conclusions are substantiated by a wide spectrum of experts.
In a report released in January by the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., the authors write that since the 1960s, the grid has experienced a major blackout about once every 10 years, with the length and frequency increasing by about 2 percent annually.
“In other words, reported reliability is getting worse,” the report said.
Demands have grown as fast as improvements.
Electricity requirements turned sharply upward in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Department, reversing a three-year recession-related decline and finishing some 14.4 percent higher than levels in 1999. Actual production rose more than 32 percent during the same decade.
Attention increasingly has focused on proposals to create a greener, smarter, “self-healing” grid that can make decisions on the fly and cut off spreading blackouts.
The approach, advocates say, could allow wider use of more-efficient clean energy, such as wind and solar. It also could create new opportunities to exploit electricity storage capabilities of electric car fleets, reducing demand on existing generator fleets.
But real progress is slow.
In 2008, Ohio set two benchmarks for reliability of electricity distribution systems, one measuring the number of power interruptions a customer logs in per year and another clocking the average length of an outage, said Beth Gianforcaro, spokeswoman for the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, which often faces off with the utility companies on behalf of residential customers.
Only Columbus Southern Power, an AEP subsidiary, missed a benchmark in 2011, exceeding the standard for average outage length (up to two hours and 15 minutes is acceptable) by 4 minutes. Utilities are allowed to exclude major weather events, such as the June derecho, and failures of transmission lines from these equations.
Amin, of the University of Minnesota, offers a straightforward blueprint: Build about 42,000 more miles of high-voltage lines at a cost of about $82 billion, spread over 10 to 20 years.
Another $14 billion to $24 billion will be needed to create a 21st Century “smart grid” that can deal with trouble on the fly, he said. This includes universal use of new systems called phasor measurement units that track and respond almost instantly to any sign of change in the way electricity moves around the grid.
Amin said America can expect $2.80 to $6 in benefits for every dollar spent — provided the country can agree on a common path.
Still, some people warn that constant tinkering with so complicated a system could make the grid worse.
“We seem to be deploying a lot of this architecture faster than we think about some of these issues,” said Seth Blumsack, a Pennsylvania State University engineer and researcher. “I’m concerned that public agencies are not prepared to respond. They haven’t thought about how to ensure certain critical services will be available if something like a cyberattack happens.”
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