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The necessity of electricity is never more evident until you don’t have it. Exactly 10 years ago, such a thought was in the minds of over 50 million people across 8 North-eastern US states  and Ontario as they experienced, at the time, the second largest blackout in history.

The epic event was caused by sagging high-voltage power lines in Ohio coming in contact with overgrown trees that should have been trimmed and maintained properly. The power line then overloaded, shut down, and should have triggered an alarm to the grid operators. However, within an hour, 3 more lines overloaded and shut down, while grid operators remained in the dark (figuratively), completely unaware of what was happening. By 4:10 pm, millions were left in the dark (literally) as a massive blackout spread across the grid, lasting as long as 2 days in some places. It is estimated that the 2003 Northeast Blackout, cost around $6 billion and resulted in 11 deaths.

New York skyline

New York on August 14, 2003

 Since that fateful day in August, which remains a watershed moment for those who had to live through it, the power grid has changed. On this 10 year anniversary, it is important to highlight the problems of the grid then, and look at the progress that has been made, and what still needs to be done to ensure such events are a thing of the past.

Now

The blackout spurred both the American and Canadian government to respond with sweeping changes and regulations to prevent such events from happening again. Before the 2003 blackout, the North American Electricity Reliability Council (NERC) compiled a list of voluntary standards for energy distributors. At the time, many power distributors could opt out of such recommendations. After the blackout, however, these standards became mandatory and are now enforced by overseeing agencies that have the authority to issue penalties to violating parties. One of these new regulations requires foliage to be adequately cleared from power lines (the cause of the blackout). Failure to comply with this regulation could result in a fine upwards of a $1 million per day depending on risk and severity.

In 2003, electricity data sharing was well behind today’s standards. In North America’s interconnected grid, a power outage in one area can cause a measurable change in demand within seconds in another area of the grid thousands of miles away. Back then, it would take a distributor 30 seconds or more to receive data measuring such a change in demand. Today, that delay has been reduced, largely as a result of the deployment of phasor measurement units (PMUs for short). These devices are connected to transmission lines, measuring any changes in voltage. If the fluctuations are severe, they can warn distributors of an imminent power failure in less than 10 seconds. In 2003, there were exactly zero PMUs deployed in North America, at the end of this year, there will be more than 1,000 in operation.

Phasor Unit

A phasor measurement unit, devices like these are helping us to understand what’s happening to our grid much faster

Although no electrical grid system is immune to blackouts (no matter how advanced or well maintained), as a result of many of these preventative changes, power distributors know more about what’s happening in their grid today than they did yesterday, and they will know if there’s a problem a lot sooner. Additionally, more oversight is ensuring that the grid doesn’t remain vulnerable to an outage like it did in the past. Experts like former NERC vice president, David Hilt, agree that blackouts of the magnitude experienced in 2003 are less likely to happen today.

Future

Although the grid has come a long way since the blackout, there are still daunting challenges ahead, among them is generating capacity. According to the US Department of Energy, by 2040 electricity usage is expected to increase by 28% from 2011 levels, and according to the Ontario Power Authority, by 2030, demand in Ontario will be 15% higher than 2010 levels. This scenario poses certain complications and no guaranteed solution. It will likely require an increase in generating capacity, more transmission lines or both in order to decrease the likelihood of power outages, and all of these options are very expensive.

transmissionlines

New transmission lines are needed in the future

The 2003 blackout proved that a centralized grid system is very vulnerable to a large scale outage, and 10 years after the fact, the grid is still a largely centralized operation. In a reverse trend, another viable option would be to have a more decentralized grid where power is generated in a number of different locations, and distributed over shorter distances. Although such a grid would not be immune to a blackout either, in the event of one it’s unlikely to affect all regions at once as each region would be able to generate power independently of the others.

As was mentioned in a previous blog post, decreasing energy consumption is a viable option as it requires no additional infrastructure and would result in a less strained grid. However, even if we managed to decrease per capita energy consumption drastically, the infrastructure itself would still pose a problem. Simply put, the grid’s infrastructure is old and it needs to be replaced. Much of our current grid remains unchanged since the 1960s. According to Massoud Amin, Professor in Computer and Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, upgrading transmission lines throughout North America alone would cost about $80 billion over the next 10 years.

Grid Updates

Updating and refurbishing the grid will be an expensive but necessary project

The end goal that consumers and distributors alike want is a smart grid, which is capable of monitoring itself, and automatically adapting and compensating for any conflict involving generation, consumption and distribution. This dream, however, is a good 20 years away and is largely dependent upon investments in better data collection tools (such as PMUs). Concerning a smart grid, Amin estimates that it will cost, at the very least, $340 billion over the next 20 years. Such a figure seems like a crippling blow to any smart grid proponent, however, such an investment may pay for itself overtime as inefficiencies are eliminated and blackouts prevented, which are already expensive, economy crippling events.

In any case, the worst thing that can be done is nothing at all, and the steps that we are taking now seem to be bearing fruit as there hasn’t been a blackout of the magnitude 10 years ago. Given the daunting (and expensive) task to recreate and refurbish our grid, the future seems somewhat bleak, but making the right decisions today will, at the very least, guarantee that the future won’t be dark.

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