US/Canadian blackouts 'could have been avoided'

At present reliability rules – standards for maintaining power plants and transmission systems – are voluntary. “People have followed the rules,” says Gent. “But we have become increasingly concerned that economic pressures for example may mean people will begin to extend the rules,” he said.

Gent’s agency is ultimately responsible for preventing these blackouts – NERC was formed in 1965 following a widespread power outage in the northeast – and Gent says he is personally embarrassed and upset by the disaster. He has been campaigning for five years for a federal mandate that would see NERC transformed into the North American Electric Reliability Organisation (NAERO) and would give it powers to enforce its reliability rules across the US. The legislation promoting this is presently with Congress, as part of the Energy Bill.

The cause of the outage, which saw more than 100 power plants tripping out of the system, is yet to be determined. NERC is assembling a task force of industry experts, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, FERC and the Department of Energy, to investigate the matter, although it is expected to be several months before the exact details of the cascading system failure are known.

According to New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, former US secretary of energy: “[The US has] a third world grid that needs to be modernised – that is antiquated."

But Gent refuted these comments, saying: “We have the finest grid in the world. But what is needed is more investigation into digital tools which will allow us to utilise it better.”

According to the chief executive officer of consultants R. J Rudden Associates, Richard Rudden, there is “no clear, coordinated set of guidelines to govern the development and operation of the nation’s transmission grid. The cascading events of August 14th are not simply a regional anomaly, but underscore a potentially broader industry problem, and the need for national consensus.”

A recent report released by Rudden Associates states that electric utilities and transmission owners should be spending about $63 billion for distribution improvements, and about $25 billion for transmission improvements, over the next five years. These 2002-2005 spending requirements average out to be about $13.6 billion and $5.3 billion a year, respectively, for 2002-2005.

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