Five years ago this month, a devastating blackout rippled through the Northeastern United States. The blackout plunged more than 50 million people into darkness for nearly three days and left a gaping $10 billion hole in the nation’s economy.
The power outage, however, wasn't an isolated incident.
Three years later, in July 2006, Queens, New York lost power for nine days, which resulted from the deterioration of decades-old electrical cables responsible for sending power to the city’s 100,000 residents.
The US power grid—three interconnected grids made up of 3,500 utilities serving 283 million people—still hangs together by a thread, and its dilapidated state is perhaps one of the greatest threats to homeland security, according to Bruce deGrazia, the president of Global Homeland Security Advisors and a former assistant deputy undersecretary for the Department of Defense, who spoke at an electricity industry conference in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
The slightest glitch on the transmission superhighway could upset the smooth distribution of electricity over thousands of miles of transmission lines and darken states from Ohio to New York in a matter of seconds, bringing hospitals and airports to a standstill.
“The U.S. electrical grid—the system that carries electricity from producers to consumers—is in dire straits,” the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, said in a report last year. “Electricity generation and consumption have steadily risen, placing an increased burden on a transmission system that was not designed to carry such a large load.”
President George W. Bush made grand promises in the aftermath of the August 2003 blackout, vowing to modernize the nation’s dilapidated electricity grid, and to work with Congress on a comprehensive energy bill that encouraged investment in the country’s energy infrastructure.
Yet, in the five years that have passed since the worst blackout in US history blanketed the Northeast, nothing substantial has been done to overhaul the power grid and Bush has failed to follow through on his pledge.
Now, severe power shortages and rolling blackouts have become a daily occurrence around the country as the antiquated power grid is continuously stretched beyond its means—mainly a result of electricity deregulation, whereby power is sent hundreds of miles across the grid to consumers by out-of-state power companies instead of being sent directly to consumers by their local utilities, which is what the grid was designed for.
Although tackling energy issues has taken center stage in the presidential campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, neither candidate has outlined a comprehensive plan for dealing with the country’s electricity woes. Instead, both campaigns have focused primarily on skyrocketing gasoline prices and ways in which the country can tap additional oil resources.
But the power problems, which are likely to persist, will have a direct impact on the oil markets if grid reliability continues to be ignored.
In an article in the May 7, 2008 issue of Energy Bulletin, Gail E. Tverberg wrote, “In the years ahead, we in the United States will have more and more problems with our electric grid. This is likely to result in electrical outages of greater and greater durations.” Tverberg wrote:
"Quite a few people believe that if there is a decline in oil production, we can make up much of the difference by increasing our use of electricity—more nuclear, wind, solar voltaic, geothermal or even coal. The problem with this model is that it assumes that our electric grid will be working well enough for this to happen. It seems to me that there is substantial doubt that this will be the case.
"If frequent electrical outages become common, these problems are likely to spill over into the oil and natural gas sectors. One reason this may happen is because electricity is used to move oil and natural gas through the pipelines. In addition, gas stations use electricity when pumping gasoline, and homeowners often have natural gas water heaters and furnaces with electric ignition. These too are likely to be disrupted by electrical power outages."
In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the power grid a ‘D’ rating in its report card on the state of domestic infrastructure. The group issues “report cards” every four years.
“The U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization,” a summary of ASCE’s report says. “Growth in electricity demand and investment in new power plants has not been matched by investment in new transmission facilities. Maintenance expenditures have decreased 1% per year since 1992. Existing transmission facilities were not designed for the current level of demand, resulting in an increased number of "bottlenecks," which increase costs to consumers and elevate the risk of blackouts.”
A study conducted earlier this year by the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center concluded, “Despite efforts to mitigate blackout risk, the data available from the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) for 1984-2006 indicate that the frequency of large blackouts in the United States is not decreasing.”
According to George Gross, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in utility policy, a serious lack of investment in the power grid continues to put reliability at risk and is the "Achilles heel" of the country's electric system.
"The August 2003 blackout was a wake-up call for the country to upgrade its transmission grid system," Gross said. "But the truth is that very few major transmission projects have been constructed and, as a result, transmission capacity has failed to keep pace with the expansion of power demand."
Power companies maintain grid reliability by following voluntary guidelines designed by the power industry, just like the voluntary emissions limits that the fossil-fuel industry says it upholds.
The US-Canadian task force that investigated the August 2003 blackout found numerous violations of the voluntary standards, and concluded that utilities botched routine monitoring of transmission lines and failed to trim trees along transmission passageways.
Since July, all seven of the country's regional grid operators that monitor power flow throughout the nation reported record electricity consumption as temperatures increased. Blackouts struck many parts of the country during the month of July, not because of a shortage of supply, but because the dilapidated power grid could not handle the amount of electricity that was sent back and forth across the transmission lines.
Demand for electricity is expected to increase by 45 percent by 2025, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a power industry-funded organization in charge of overseeing the rules for operating the nation's power grid.
“In some cases, demand has reached levels that were not expected for another three or four years," said Jone-Lin Wang, most recently the managing director of the Global Power Group at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "Very hot weather tends to cause more incidents of equipment failure in the distribution systems. Although the bulk power system provided adequate supply, extreme heat and surging demand put the distribution systems through extreme stress, leading to some equipment failures and localized power outages."
But neither the Bush administration nor federal lawmakers have developed a comprehensive plan to handle, at the very least, the annual increase in demand. Blackouts will likely become more frequent in areas like New York and New England, Wang said.
“We are concerned about New England because there is nothing in the pipeline, but some small renewable projects and wind," Wang said. "New England is in trouble."
The 2003 blackout led to calls for spending of up to $100 billion to reduce severe transmission bottlenecks and increase capacity so the transmission lines can carry additional electricity from power plants to homes and businesses.
But investment in the grid has lagged, and progress has been slow.
"Transmission capacity is still below 5 percent," Gross said. "The need to strengthen the existing transmission infrastructure—to expand it and to effectively harness advances in technology—constitutes the single most pressing challenge for the country's electricity system."
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This story was published on August 12, 2008.