George Gross is a professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in electric power and utility regulatory policy. He called the massive power failure of Aug. 14, 2003, which left 50 million people in the dark in the U.S. and Canada, a wake-up call for the nation to upgrade its transmission grid system. He was interviewed by News Bureau business and law editor Mark Reutter.
Next month marks three years since some unpruned trees in Ohio led to the worst power failure in the nation's history, resulting in billions of dollars of lost economic activity as well as a lot of spoiled food. What has been done to guard against a similar power failure this summer?
The electric industry and federal government have addressed many of the direct causes of the 2003 mega-blackout. Regulators have made major strides in setting up enforceable reliability standards for the business. More attention has been made to reactive power and voltage control practices. We also are seeing a serious attempt to address the training of control-center operators in light of the lessons learned in 2003. So a blackout of the magnitude of the 2003 failure has a low probability of reoccurring. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.
You pointed out that the 2003 blackout was caused not by a lack of power-generation capacity but by failures in the transmission grid that carries electricity across thousands of miles from power plants to homes and businesses. Has there been much investment in the power-grid network since 2003?
No. This remains the Achilles heel of the network. Capital investment in the existing 200,000 miles of transmission in the U.S. has been minimal, and very few major transmission projects have been undertaken in the last 25 years. At the same time, there have been significant additions to power-plant generation and significant growth in demand. The severe stressing that the grid is now experiencing is a result of all of these factors.
How can the government jump-start the system and get more private investment into the transmission infrastructure?
Transmission is currently a regulated service, and tariffs are cost-based rather than value-based. This has had the effect of discouraging investment, especially among traditional electric utilities. We need to allow pricing that encourages investment in new infrastructure projects. One encouraging sign is the establishment of transmission-only companies, such as American Transmission Co. in Wisconsin. These companies are specialists in transmission services. But as part of our national energy security, government and industry must take more pro-active steps to eliminate bottlenecks and overloading before some minor event, like some untrimmed trees, cascades into a disastrous blackout.