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Legislative backing needed to enforce standards for power transmission

Mark Reutter, Business Editor


Editors note: Gross can be reached at 217-359-1446 or 217-244-6346.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — America’s electricity grid is only as strong as its weakest links, and the huge blackout last Thursday exposed some key flaws that threaten the integrity of the system, a power expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says.

The North American Electric Reliability Council, set up after the 1965 blackout to provide grid coordination, needs legislative backing to enforce standards for power transmission and to punish those who violate its rules, said George Gross, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois.

"NERC and its regional reliability councils have created workable standards and operational protocols, but being voluntary industry bodies, they are impotent to enforce compliance other than peer pressure," Gross said. "Attempts to enact federal legislation that would give NERC teeth have not been successful."

According to Gross, "The first step is to get mandatory standards in place for transmission. The astonishingly widespread outage we experienced last week – the mega-blackout – should act as a signal that the United States and Canada must act quickly and decisively."

Gross advocates the development of a North American electric grid code that not only would codify NERC reliability and operating standards, but also establish comprehensive rules for operating transmission grids.

As recently as the 1970s, electric transmission lines were largely self-contained, built and operated by a single power company to connect its generating stations to its customers.

"Over time, transmission lines interconnecting neighboring power companies were built for the purposes of reliability or economics," Gross said. "The advent of competitive electric markets has led to the use of the transmission system in wildly different ways from which it was originally designed. The number of transactions involving the exchange of electricity among power generators has grown by 400 percent in the last decade, yet the transmission system has not grown at all over this time period."

At present, no single government entity is responsible for ensuring that the necessary upgrades to the transmission system are made. "Instead, we have a motley array of state regulatory commissions, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and NERC who oversee aspects of the transmission grid," Gross said.

"While FERC can mandate a transmission-owning utility to provide transmission service to a new entity, it is within the purview of each state’s regulatory agency to actually approve the siting of the grid. Under pressure from local groups opposed to transmission lines, the state agencies balk at giving permission for a new line, especially one that may serve a regional rather than local purpose. So nothing gets built."

Gross said that consistent rules for grid building must be in place or else private investment will not take place. "What’s more, there must be economic inducements to encourage long-term investment in the transmission infrastructure," he said.

The good news is that transmission is a small part of the overall cost of supplying electricity to homes and business, typically less than 10 percent. The greatest cost comes from building and operating power stations.

Gross noted that last Thursday’s blackout was not caused by lack of power generation. In fact, only 75 percent of the installed capacity was on line, giving the system a healthy 25 percent margin in generation.

"But the same was not true on the transmission front," Gross said, "where the stress on the grid led to cascading outages throughout the interconnection in the Midwest, Northeast, Ontario and New England systems."

Gross is an expert in transmission services and pricing. Last year, he served on the National Transmission Grid Study for U.S. Department of Energy, which assessed ways to improve the nation’s electricity network.

He is also affiliated with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and is director of the EEI Transmission Business School, a technical educational program.