Gridlock caution on anniversary of worst U.S. blackout

On one hand, it makes perfect sense that the Obama administration would use the week of the 10th anniversary of the worst blackout in the U.S. to release a report on electric grid resiliency.

On the other hand, the fact that its focus is that “severe weather is the leading cause of power outages in the United States,” makes the timing a little curious. The blackout of Aug. 14, 2003, that took out power to upwards of 50 million people in eight states from Ohio to New England, as well as part of Canada, and lasted nearly two days in some places, had nothing to do with severe weather.

It was a transmission line failure compounded by human error that caused an initial power outage to cascade out of control in less than 10 seconds.

But one thing remains clear a decade later, according to the new report, prepared jointly by the Department of Energy and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers – weather events, as they grow more severe and frequent, are taxing the nation’s electric grid more and more, and they’re costing us a lot.

From 2003 to 2012, the report said, severe weather caused some 679 power outages that affected at least 50,000 people – accounting for 58 percent of all outages and 87 percent of outages of 50,000 or more. The report cited Energy Information Agency statistics that show a massive increase in weather-related outages since1992.

Their annual average cost, adjusted for inflation, was $18 billion to $33 billion. That’s a “measure of lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, inconvenience and damage to the electric grid,” the report said.

But in years such as 2008 when hurricane Ike hit, the economic impact was estimated as high as $75 million. And last year from Sandy, the estimate goes up to $52 billion.

Exacerbating the increase in severe weather, the report pointed out: “the aging nature of the grid – much of which was constructed over a period of more than 100 years – has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather.”

The report goes on to call for more investment in grid resilience and other modernizations. It sets priorities for doing that. One is conducting exercises to assess risk and vulnerabilities. Another is strengthening – including use of underground lines as well as switching to steel and concrete poles – both prohibitively expensive.

The report calls for increasing flexibility with ways to bypass damaged areas, storing energy and establishing microgrids – the kind of mini-grids that can run on their own during a power failure. Connecticut is the process of implementing a microgrid pilot program – the first state in the nation to do so. It also calls for a more modern alert system, better automatic switching during a failure and ways to anticipate problems.

All are costly, but the report weighs that price tag against the costs of long power outages. And it points out that upgraded energy systems can also lead to greater energy efficiency, which in turn lowers demand and the potential for outages.

The report follows another one by the Department of Energy last month that warned of climate change’s impact on all sorts of energy facilities and infrastructure. It also comes on the heels of a heat wave in the Northeast that set new electric demand records. And it comes after the revelation that the Northeastern grids faced a near crisis in early July when forest fires in Canada shut down major transmission of hydropower from Quebec.

 

 

 

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