Blackout Surveillance and Prevention Solutions

William Molnar | Sep 23, 2003

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Traumatic events like 9/11, the anthrax scare, and, the recent Northeast blackout have sent fear and panic into the public, government, utilities and emergency infrastructure. These events have forced our governing bodies to take a closer look at our vulnerability.

The Northeast blackout, although monumental in size and demise, is no surprise to those that deal with our Nations transmission grid. Scheduled maintenance, weather events and unforeseen outages (blackouts) are daily occurrences that utilities and merchant energy companies have to manage. What was not routine on August 14, 2003 was span and severity of the catastrophe estimated to be ten times the size of the California rolling blackouts. The domino effect that ensued on August 14th affected an eight state region, which was unprecedented.

So what can be done about it? Homeland security has become a top priority for our Government and the blackout is no exception. The newly formed US and Canadian task force under the direction of FERC Chairman, Pat Wood III, has vowed to uncover the cause of the event. Finding the cause is an important step in correcting the problem but it is only a first step.

Perhaps the August events where a wake up call, much like 9/11, once again reminding us of are vulnerability. We must view such events as an opportunity to improve our infrastructure and look for new ways to ensure our future safety. Future threats and uncertainty will require new thoughts and technologies to ensure that our power grid does not become a weakness.

So what can be done about it? Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes or inexpensive solutions. Many argue expansion of the Northeast grid will alleviate congestion and thus fix the problem. That may tactically patch the problem but it does little to assure that an attack and/or a repeat of the August events will not reoccur.

So what can be done to prevent a re-occurrence? The same technology used by local governments for bio-terrorism surveillance solutions in the form of real-time monitoring and alerting of events. This solution uses SAS as the statistical logic behind a real-time integrated network of area hospitals capable of instantaneously identifying and notifying potential bio-terrorism related symptoms.

This solution could be applied not only as a monitoring hub for the Nation’s grid but as a potential blackout prevention solution as well. By integrating and centralizing historical transmission throughput data with real-time scada (Grid) data, tools like SAS could provide the necessary repository and analytics engine to decipher and identify potential fault tolerances. The tool would use historical statistical variances to identify loads that fall outside 2 or 3 standard deviations from the norm. Once a transmission or power generation deficiency is identified the solution could be designed to automatically re-route transmission bottlenecks preventing a blackout.

In the late nineties, while transitioning from energy trader to technology consultant, I wrote a number of articles on the risk management and the power grid. One of my first articles, on power, focused on the Florida power shortage in the summer of 1998. During this event, Florida found itself buying power from the Northeast to cover peak demand. I was fascinated by the fact that despite the 30% line loss associated with transmission it still made sense to move power from the Northeast down to Florida.

One other interesting note from those events was that the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney Worlds main source of power, found itself, in the position to sell excess generation to the Florida grid. My interview with Reedy Creek turned out to be more interesting than expected. Have you ever noticed that there are no visible power lines at Disney World? That is because Reedy Creek has buried its power lines for both protective and esthetic purposes. Miles of lines are buried underground with built in redundancy for instantaneous re-route, assuring Disney’s patrons never experience a power outage. In addition to the underground redundancy, battery power generators are available as a final failsafe backup. Not a bad place to hang out should a hurricane threaten Florida. Perhaps we as a nation can learn from this not so Mickey Mouse operation.

One thing I learned in my ten years in the energy business is that seldom do regulated entities take initiative that is not required by regulatory agencies. Regulators will have to allow utilities to pass the costs associated with such solutions through in their rates. In the end, the consumer always pays. However, as the consumers we must embrace and grin and bear the costs of a solution that would prevent such tragedies in the future.

Once the August grid malfunction is determined and isolated perhaps the root cause areas could implement underground redundancy and battery powered backup generation to prevent a re-occurrence. Monitoring systems, as described, could be employed as additional surveillance and prevention automatically re-routing bottlenecks.

The beauty of technology is that if there is a will there is way. What is it worth to ensure a blackout of this magnitude does not reoccur? The answer lies in our Nations commitment to excellence, protection and reliability in our utility network. There is no out of the box resolve to our transmission vulnerability but there are technologies and success stories in our own backyard available that we cannot afford to ignore.

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