History is quick to remind us how far we’ve come—and how far we still need to go. A look back at our country’s most infamous brownouts and blackouts is all it takes to remind us how fragile our electrical power infrastructure really is.
It was a simple human error that caused one of our country’s largest outages—“The Northeast Blackout of 1965,” which happened on a frosty November evening. That little “oops”—an incorrectly set protective relay on one of the transmission lines—left at least 25 million people in New York, New England, and portions of Pennsylvania and New Jersey without power for 12 hours.
Then, there was the blackout of August 10, 1996, when extreme summer heat set off a failure in the Western Interconnection. Power was shut down for 10 hours in nine Western states and parts of Mexico—affecting some 4 million customers.
And who could forget the night the lights went out on August 14, 2003? The massive outage shut down more than 100 power plants and caused roughly $4 billion in financial losses, and left an estimated 10 million people in Canada and 40 million people in eight states—including New York City and the surrounding areas—without power for several hours. The root of the outage: Outdated technology and training.
That blackout in particular was a real eye-opener for utility companies. According to the U.S./Canada Power System Outage Task Force, the internal control-room procedures, protocols, and technologies did not adequately prepare system operators to prevent the 2003 emergency. In fact, throughout the afternoon, there were many clues that one of the control areas had lost its critical monitoring functionality and that its transmission system’s reliability was becoming progressively more compromised. Clearly, the technologies and training in place then did not provide the visualization or decision support needed to manage that scenario.
The lessons learned from blackouts have prompted power companies to revamp their infrastructures with new technologies in an effort to make the grid smart. A smart power system is one that is capable of being monitored and controlled remotely and electronically to preempt grid failures, and to conserve energy and resources. Key to this is distributing the available energy to prevent demand overloads that cause brownouts and blackouts.
Getting the power infrastructure from where we were to where we are today—and where we need to be in the near future—can be largely attributed to two very important pieces of legislation: the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) and the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (EESA). Signed into law in December 2007, EISA’s Title XIII served as a catalyst for the deployment of a smart power grid system and the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in the United States. Title XIII also set pro-smart-grid policies in place to promote deployment across the nation. Some incentives were offered, such as a 20% deployment cost reimbursement from the government and a request from the federal government to the state governments that utilities be allowed to recover smart-grid investment costs from customers. However, EISA’s Title XIII did not guarantee enough incentives to encourage utilities to build the “smart grid” in earnest.
Passed in October 2008, a part of EESA provides more tangible incentives to deploy the smart grid and provided the needed jolt to the industry to improve the infrastructure. “Deploy now or lose the incentives” is the way the law is written.