Why the lights mostly stayed on in the US this summer
Despite blackouts caused by Katrina and other one-time events, the power industry has improved the grid.
Temperatures remained stuck somewhere between scorched and scalding across the Northeast this summer, but there was always enough electric power to keep air conditioners humming.Skip to next paragraph
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When a misdirected utility crew cut into a bundle of live electrical wires last Wednesday, plunging half of Los Angeles into darkness, power managers were able to prevent the crisis from cascading across southern California and beyond.
And there have been no brownouts or rolling blackouts from Fairfield County, Conn. - where industry watchers say power is chronically inadequate - to northern California, where a summer of brownouts in 2000 captured national headlines.
It's all been enough to prompt even hardened cynics to ask whether the electric-power industry has made headway in improving the reliability of America's electric grid since the infamous summer of 2003. That year, in a truly unfortunate series of events that surpass those invented by children's author Lemmony Snicket, outages at 21 power plants in three minutes left cities from Toronto to Detroit to New York sweltering in the dark.
With a few exceptions, the US has made considerable strides over the past two years in managing, producing, and distributing electrical power, many analysts agree. New power plants and transmission lines are in place. Some old plants and facilities have been upgraded. Trees near power lines are being trimmed. Most noteworthy, communication and coordination between grid operators in different regions of the country have been vastly improved, by most accounts.
"The blackout of 2003 absolutely turned up the heat and put a spotlight on an industry from top to bottom that didn't get much attention in the previous decade," says David Turner, senior vice president at Gestalt, a firm that advises the defense and energy industries. "We are doing things today, and creating legislation that addresses detail we would never have looked at if that blackout had not happened."
A case in point is California. Since the brownouts of summer 2001, over 12,000 megawatts (one megawatt powers 1,000 homes) have come online in about 25 new generating plants, and $3 billion in investment in new facilities is in the offing. One key north-south transmission corridor has added a third transmission line, easing distribution state-wide like an extra lane on a freeway.
And utilities have simply done a far better job at such basics as better training and keeping power lines clear of falling debris.
"We have a new computer system, enhanced training, and an enhanced tree-trimming program," says Ellen Raines, spokeswoman for First Energy Corp., whose Ohio power line got hit by falling branches, leading to the two-day, 2003 blackout affecting millions in several states. "The entire industry has a greater understanding of how the transmission system is used that is very different from the way it was used then."
Independent system operators and other industry groups have also improved their assessments in the decade following deregulation.