Congress Unplugged

The electricity grid needs an urgent overhaul. Whether it will happen is another matter.

| Mon Apr. 19, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Everyone knows there’s a problem with the electrical grid in this country. The blackout last August that stretched from Michigan to Canada to New York and put 50 million people in the dark, some for several days, was a stark indicator that the antiquated, disorganized system needs an overhaul.

And yet, when Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) asked the Senate to immediately consider a bill designed to enhance the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid, the bill was set aside. Why? Because the ghost of the energy bill, which many hoped died (and took the big giveaways to industry with it) for good last year in the Senate, is back to haunt the well-intentioned. Some in congress want to shove the electrical system legislation in with a mish mash of assorted energy regulations. But if something isn’t done to improve the grid system, and soon, another blackout is sure to follow.

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The U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force, assigned to examine the August 14 blackout, last week released a 228-page report calling for urgent approval of mandatory reliability rules to govern the electric transmission industry. The report determined that the self-policing approach to energy industry regulation just doesn’t cut it.

One problem is that computer systems that are too slow to warn the grid operator of trouble in an emergency. For instance, the Midwest system operator, whose predecessor version froze up on Aug. 14, takes eight to 10 minutes to run its program. The blackout last summer only took six minutes to darken eight states and Ontario. Another problem is structural. The Midwest grid operator, for example, has 33 separate transmission systems within its "footprint," or area of coverage, reflecting fragmented utility ownership. Such disconnection makes it hard to coordinate, especially in an emergency.

This report follows on the heels of a preliminary report last November, and issues 46 recommendations, the first of which is to "make reliability standards mandatory and enforceable with penalties for noncompliance."

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says the report "makes clear that this blackout could have been prevented."

Even so, legislation is decidedly not a sure thing. Indeed, some senators still hope to tack the laws on electricity reliability onto the gargantuan and pork-laden 1,000-plus-page energy bill, which failed to pass last year. As an editorial in the New York Times noted on Monday, a stand-alone bill is being held up by senators and representatives who hope that if included in a broader energy bill, other, localized desires will get passed along with it.

"Along with a host of giveaways to the coal, oil and gas industries, the energy bill contains similarly useful provisions aimed at preventing blackouts. The bill's sponsors believe its prospects would be weakened if those provisions were voted on separately."

The Washington Post says it would be a "shame" if electricity regulation got lost in the enormous bill:

"That bill failed, in the end, because it was overstuffed with pork and extra perks for individual congressmen, none of which had much to do with electricity reliability or even the nation's energy policy. There is no evidence that bill will pass this year -- or ever. It would be a shame if insistence on the "whole bill or nothing" meant that Congress never did get around to shoring up the electricity grid -- or perhaps "shame" is too mild a word."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, whose state was hit by the blackout, has argued for a stand-alone electricity bill for months. He said after the report: "Each day this legislation is not considered is another day consumers remain unnecessarily at risk of another blackout."

Another blackout isn’t a far-fetched possibility. The summer season may mean increased energy demands. Granted, the weather plays a large role in how much electricity will be needed, but some economists forecast an economic recovery equaling more energy consumption. In the mid-Atlantic region, the grid operator is forecasting potential record demand for electricity this summer, while New York state also is forecasting higher demand.

A separate audit by NERC, North American Electric Reliability Council, the agency responsible for grid reliability and safety, found problems, but also noted improvements. The NERC audit found that the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, the body unable to stop last summer's failure, has made strides to improve its readiness. For example, its ability to monitor grid conditions is now displayed through better control-room wall maps that show flashing lines when transmission-line loads approach dangerous levels. Utilities and grid operators have re-trained control-room operators, who manage power flows. Most utilities have added five days of emergency training that they're attempting to complete by June 30. In Michigan, International Transmission is using helicopters and high-resolution photography to spot worn out equipment.

But one of the major problems that led up to the blackout in August, was that while NERC had suggestions for improving electrical grids, there were not policed. The New York Times again:

"There are rules in place addressing many of the problems that the task force identified, including shoddy maintenance, faulty monitoring equipment (the company's computers were outdated) and a breakdown in communications between FirstEnergy and neighboring systems. Unfortunately, these rules, which are administered by an industry group called the North American Electric Reliability Council, impose no sanctions on those who violate them."

The company at the heart of the trouble, FirstEnergy Corp., which the U.S.-Canada taskforce accused of employing "inadequately trained" control-room operators, having poor internal communications, lousy tree-trimming practices, unreliable computer systems, and that it employed a weaker voltage standard that put its system closer to the edge.

FirstEnergy says it has fixed some problems. They say they’ve updated computer systems and have beefed up its control-room staffing and transmission analysis. But the company doesn’t buy into all the complaints posed by the task force. Charles E. Jones, senior vice president of energy delivery at FirstEnergy, told the Wall Street Journal, "We have a factual disagreement" with the report.

Another problem with fixing the system is the close relationship between utilities and "local reliability councils" set up around the country that make sure safe practices are followed. The Wall Street Journal reports:

"There are 10 such councils nationally, which critics say sometimes are dominated by or otherwise too close to the utilities they oversee. For example, FirstEnergy performs payroll services for the East Central Area Reliability Council, or ECAR, which is assigned to monitor safe practices from Kentucky to the Great Lakes. FirstEnergy allows the organization's employees to participate in the utility's 401(k) retirement plan and gives them shares of FirstEnergy stock."

NERC claims it had no idea about such arrangements until the report came out. Congress specifically deferred to industry self-regulation when it created the reliability-council structure in 1968 after a large Northeast blackout.

Clearly, there’s a need for an electricity bill that addresses these problems and move from the self-regulation stragegy. As the Post writes:

"At least in principle, Ms. Cantwell's bill -- co-sponsored by 18 other senators -- would create precisely such standards. Congress should act now to pass this bill or something similar. The wait for comprehensive energy legislation may be a long one, and the nation's electrical grid can't afford it."

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