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Solutions to avoiding future blackouts abound, with no political consensus
In the dim light of last week's blackout, power-industry pundits seemed to agree: Transmitting electricity, not producing it, has become the weakest link in the nation's energy chain. Fixing the way that the power is moved, the experts said, could dramatically cut the chance of another widespread failure.

Their potential solution? An array of possibilities, rather than a "single, simple silver bullet," says Peter Fox-Penner of The Brattle Group, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Among the recommendations:

Build better transmissionlines. Build more of them and protect them better from chain-reaction outages that can "cascade" like falling dominoes.

Refine and use promising new technology such as "superconducting" cable. This nitrogen-cooled transmissionline, now under development, could carry up to 25 times more electricity than today's standard copper cable can. That means it could absorb power surges and other assaults, natural and manmade, without failing.

Bring order to the operation of the national electrical "grid." Political disagreement over regulation and deregulation runs deep: Some states oppose control by federal or central authorities, and efforts to bring standard rules and control are stuck in congressional debate over an energy bill. On Sunday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Bush administration favors a three-year delay in setting national standards and regulations for managing the flow of electricity.

Whatever the remedies, preventing a repeat of last Thursday's collapse probably will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Industry consultant Eric Hirst estimates that at least $56 billion will have to be spent in the next decade just to maintain "adequacy" in the nation's 157,000 miles of high-voltage transmissionlines. Investigators suspect several of those lines in northern Ohio had a role in the power failure, the worst blackout in U.S. history.

Refitting the transmission grid with faster digital devices to arrest such outages before they spread could cost nearly twice that amount. Older, mechanical safety systems, circuit breakers and the like are common along the electrical transmission network.

"These (new) devices would help create a smart, self-healing power system," says Kurt Yeager, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit research center in Palo Alto, Calif. "We have sensors that can monitor not on a second-by-second basis, but on a nanosecond (a billionth of a second) basis."

Yeager estimates a $100 billion price tag for a retrofit. But he says improved reliability would more than compensate: "Thursday was an extreme situation, but there are smaller events that happen all the time that have economic implications." Those episodes already cost the economy close to $100 billion a year, he says.

Warnings of problems

There's no debating the economic significance of electricity.

The nation's more than 3,100 electric utilities operate 10,000 power plants, plus transmissionlines and distribution facilities. Together, they are worth an estimated $800 billion. The nation's combined yearly electric bill, paid by 131 million households and businesses, totals $247 billion.

Just two weeks before the blackout, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued the "Grid 2030" report after dozens of electric utility representatives, regulators and others met last spring to debate power system needs for the next quarter-century.

The study described the U.S. electrical system as "aging, inefficient, and congested, and incapable of meeting the future energy needs ... without operational changes and substantial capital investment over the next several decades."

Significantly, it added that "capital investment in new electric transmissions and distribution facilities is at an all-time low."

At least some efforts to improve the nation's electrical grid were underway before Thursday's power system crash, though not in the stricken areas.

California, with no room to carry more electricity at peak output, is upgrading one of its transmission systems. The Bonneville Power Administration, which owns much of the Pacific Northwest's power grid, is upgrading. Two other electricity movers — Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland Interconnection (PJM) and Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (Midwest ISO) — have announced plans for more transmission, too.

But the Energy Department projects that investment in power lines will grow only 6% over the next decade, while demand for electricity surges another 20%. Spending on transmissionlines is so low largely because no one knows who, if anyone, will regulate the lines. "Investment abhors uncertainty," says Yeager of the research institute.

Building more and better transmissionlines is a critical part of the solution.

"We have more than adequate generation for the United States and Canada, but we do not have adequate transmission to accommodate the deliveries," says Michehl Gent, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council, which was formed by utilities after the 1965 blackouts to try to coordinate the industry.

Transmission a hodge-podge

The transmission system is an old hodge-podge of power lines owned by different utilities that once served strictly local needs. Over the decades, utilities have shared energy across state lines but have resisted attempts to bring federal regulation over the network that has gradually spread and become interconnected.

Meanwhile, each state regulates the system differently, and they rarely agree on the rules. No federal authority exists over the electric industry. The reliability council and regional bodies like it are only advisory and can't enforce recommended rules.

One result of the state-by-state regulation: Investors refuse to commit the billions of dollars needed to expand, improve and rebuild transmissionlines, says Ken Malloy, president and CEO of the Center for the Advancement of Energy Markets.

Industry experts also blame the "not-in-my-backyard" reaction by consumers to construction of new power lines near their homes. Never mind that the lines would supply the juice to essential household appliances and beloved electrical gadgets. "NIMBY" is a powerful deterrent, even when utilities want to add more lines.

Researchers toil at new technology that could make big blackouts a quaint historical footnote of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Atop the list: super-conducting electrical wire and cable that has been in development since the mid-1980s. Its vastly larger capacity to carry electricity could absorb the surges and overloads that cause conventional power lines to fail.

"You don't have to dig up the streets to put it in, either," says Dean Peterson of the Superconductivity Technology Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where a "second-generation" version of the super-conducting wire was developed in the mid-1990s. "You'd pull out the copper wires and slide in the super-conducting ones."

Peterson says super-conducting wire and cable would save the estimated 8% to 10% of electricity lost to resistance "leakage" from conventional lines as power is transmitted greater distances. Such savings could help offset the far higher cost of such high-tech cable over today's copper lines.

Widespread use of such technology may be years away and probably would be paid for by utility customers. But three demonstration projects are underway in Albany, N.Y., Columbus, Ohio, and on Long Island, where 300,000 customers would be receiving their electricity via high-tech cables by 2005. Superconductor technology also is under study for smaller, lighter, more efficient electrical generators and other power-system components.

And a prototype super-conducting "fault current limiter" has been developed to protect larger sections of an electrical grid than conventional equipment can. It would act as an industrial-size equivalent of the surge protectors that millions of households and businesses use to shield computers and appliances from lightning strikes and damaging surges.

"You're not going to snap your fingers and have this occur overnight," Peterson says. "But if you start inserting these new applications into the grid, you offer more protection and increased capabilities."

Antiquated distribution

Any new technological solution will have to overcome the antiquated manner in which electricity is distributed in the USA. The electric reliability council has fought to adopt standard rules for running the electrical system within the multi-agency constraints of the transmission grid. One example: A pricing system based on user demand rather than the cost of producing electricity. Some power companies, seeking top dollar, send electricity to areas already saturated with power, and that overwhelms the system.

Such measures are voluntary, and there are no penalties for those who disregard safe, responsible operation of the network.

The national energy bill, stuck in Congress for two years, would give the council regulatory muscle to make the system more reliable. But some states don't want to surrender control. The energy bill also is caught in wrangling over other issues, from price supports for methane-based "gasohol" to oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. The House and Senate take up separate versions again when Congress reconvenes next month

"I thought the California outages a couple of years ago would really spur Congress, but they didn't," says Mark Bernstein, an energy expert at the RAND Corp. think-tank in Santa Monica, Calif. "The power will be back on Monday, and six months later everybody may have forgotten this."

William Hogan, professor of public policy and energy economics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the latest collapse is a powerful argument to pass the bill and adopt the regulation plan. "The notion that you can solve these problems locally is wrong, and it makes it a federal problem," Hogan says.

Branko Terzic, director of energy research at Deloitte & Touche and a former member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, says a number of private companies are ready to write checks for new power lines. But many would-be investors won't propose them because they know they will never receive all the approvals needed from the various states along the way.

RAND's Bernstein says the nation needs a regulatory climate that encourages expansion of power transmission systems and provides attractive and predictable rates of financial return for utilities that choose to expand.

Malloy, whose think tank favors deregulating the industry, predicts it will take "more chaos to get us where we're going" — perhaps even another major blackout.

Despite the center's deregulation stance, it still wants a single, highly regulated owner of the transmission network — like the way the federal government owns the interstate highway system — so decisions can be made without multi-jurisdictional gridlock.

Until then, a nation long accustomed to energy at the flick of a switch is still a short-circuit away from the dim reality of yesteryear.

"If Edison came back and took a look at the electric industry," Malloy says, "he'd be pretty comfortable because it's pretty much how he left it."

Contributing: USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy

 
 
 
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