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Girding The Grid

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2003-09-08 Print this article Print

The Northeast blackout revealed an electric system in disrepair. The bright side? It's holding up well for being hatched in 1948.

Innovation may be the life-blood of technology, but once the electrons stop flowing even the best information system goes limp.

About 50 million electricity customers throughout the Northeast and Canada learned that lesson the hard way—an Aug. 14 blackout exposed how vulnerable the nation's electric system is to accidental or intentional interruption.

Investigators will mine data from Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software, much like an airplane's black box, to get a real-time picture of what went wrong. In the meantime, here are the numbers behind the grid:

The number of seconds utility operators have to react to a cascading collapse of the power grid.
Energy management systems are primarily used to distribute power across the grid. They aren't built to do the computations necessary to adjust the flow of electricity after rapid-fire catastrophic events, says Chanan Singh, head of the electrical engineering department at Texas A&M. "There just wasn't enough time," in August, says Singh. "That has to be done by human beings.''

Because of dense populations in cities, power plants need to balance the distribution of electricity between urban areas. If one generator dips its production, others in the power grid offset the fluctuation. This balancing act takes place in nanoseconds.

Singh says overlapping power sources are good "99% of the time," but a sharp drop in power spurs shutdowns.

Cost to install an energy management system for a utility.
These systems are designed to balance load, the amount of electricity traveling through the grid, when supply and demand are off-kilter. The system tracks the frequency, voltage and sequence of electricity between two points. If the generators are firing "in-step" in a region, the system adjusts the load on its own. When generators are out of synch, the system alerts operators who decide how to balance the system.

"It's early in the investigation, but it's apparent the right information didn't get to grid operators in the time it takes to take corrective action," says Jill Feblowitz, an AMR Research analyst.

One system failure. One scapegoat.
The transmission lines of FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, have been singled out as the choke point that triggered the blackout. Early reports indicated a lightning strike may have damaged a generator and key transmission lines in Ohio. FirstEnergy officials, who won't reveal their suppliers, admit that at least one part of their system failed.

"We do know that our alarm-screen function failed," says FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin. "But we can't believe that a problem with our transmission lines could have been the cause of such a widespread problem."

Credit Suisse First Boston analyst James Heckler says blaming FirstEnergy for the mass outage is "premature and likely overstated."

The number of U.S. vendors who provide SCADA systems to utilities worldwide.
"There's no standardization of I.T. systems for utility providers," says Scott Castelaz, vice president of corporate development and external affairs at Encorp, a Windsor, Colo., developer of energy management software and hardware. "That becomes a real problem with so many agencies overlapping in densely populated regions."

Analysts say a universal reporting and monitoring system helps operators respond to emergencies. Instead of calling each other by phone when something fails, alerts can come automatically.

"In some ways, it's (utility providers') responsibility to connect to each other through their systems," says Feblowitz.

Year that President Truman launched plan to bring transmission lines and generators to rural America.
Power companies after world war II built transmission lines and generators in places far removed from cities. While rural residents were thrilled, they couldn't consume the energy at their disposal. More capacity was built to shuttle excess power to metropolitan areas. The electric grid has been neglected ever since.

"Most of the grid's infrastructure is more than 50 years old and hasn't been upgraded," says Castelaz. "The power companies are very proud that despite its age, the system still works pretty well most of the time."

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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