USA . T & D

A year after the 14 August catastrophic power failure that hit north-eastern USA and parts of Canada, some progress has been made on upgrading the grid to minimise the chance of a repeat performance.

Robert Burns, director of the National Regulatory Research Institute at Ohio State University said: “Most of what could have been done in a year has been done, with one big exception. We need mandatory reliability standards and that has not happened.” At present, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) sets reliability standards, but compliance is voluntary. It is now generally agreed that mandatory reliability standards are required.

Scott Moore, vice president of transmission for American Electric Power (AEP) said: “The grid is an interconnected system that depends on everyone doing their jobs. We want everyone to be held to the same bar we set for ourselves. We need that legislation.”

Such standards are part of a comprehensive energy bill that was due to pass in the USA in 2003. However, the bill has been stalled on several issues and seems no closer to being passed than it was a year ago. Tyson Slocum, research director of the Public Citizen advocacy group, has said that the issue will not be resolved until mandatory reliability becomes a stand-alone bill.

Despite the lack of movement regarding reliability standards, considerable changes have been made to the grid over the last year. In February 2004, NERC directed FirstEnergy and the two regional operators – MISO and PJM – who oversee the part of the grid involved in the blackout, to make specific improvements in equipment, training, policy and staffing. The changes address the direct causes of the blackout. FirstEnergy, MISO and PJM have provided formal certification to NERC confirming that all remedial actions have been carried out.

The cascading blackout started in FirstEnergy’s system when three power lines overheated and sagged into trees. Because of confusion at FirstEnergy, MISO and PJM, coupled with malfunctioning grid monitoring and communications systems, the blackout spread before it could be isolated and contained. The investigation into the events surrounding the blackout concluded that FirstEnergy did not follow voluntary industry standards in areas such as cutting back trees and plants near power lines. Since then, FirstEnergy has increased its vegetation management programme, invested in new technology and revised its training and staffing levels.

MISO has invested nearly $15 million in additional personnel and new monitoring, alarm and communications systems that enable operators to see what is happening across the whole grid in real time. It reduced the number of control centres that it oversees from 32 to 2, centralising command, and developed a joint operating agreement with the neighbouring PJM and three other authorities to address common problems.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Simul Corporation carried out a customer satisfaction survey to examine the views of consumers in Ontario.

In answer to the question: “Who was mostly to blame for the blackout?”, 38% said that the utilities were to blame for not maintaining and upgrading their equipment and transmission lines, 24% blamed governments for not adequately regulating the electricity industry, while 9% blamed consumers for using too much electricity. Intriguingly, 7% believed that no-one was at fault, while 12% said that everyone was.

The survey also checked customer satisfaction with their electricity provider, and it found that Ontario, which bore the brunt of the blackout in Canada, had much lower levels of customer satisfaction. Only 33% in Ontario are “very satisfied” with their electric utility. The comparable figure in the rest of Canada is 46% .

Outside Ontario, 56% of customers believe that their local utility is reliable. This figure falls to 44% in Ontario. Similarly, in Ontario, 32% say that their utility is efficient compared to 47% in the rest of Canada.