Issue Contents : : The Last WordAmerica after Dark
From control systems to financing, the power structure in our country is ready for an overhaul.
After the lights went out August 14, competing explanations were quick to emerge. Canada blamed the United States. The United States blamed Canada. And almost everyone, it seemed, blamed First Energy of Ohio, which supplies electricity to much of the Midwest, including Oberlin. But the blame game is still very premature. It will be a long time before investigations determine what exactly caused the massive cascading power failure that left millions in the dark.
We should not be tempted to think that the results of an inquiry will prevent future blackouts. While we may determine the precise timeline of power failures and why they occurred, we will not likely agree on how to fix the system.
Part of the problem is this: the North American power system will always run as close to its limits as it can. It's true that investment in transmission capacity has not kept pace with electrical demand, but adding lines or capacity will only delay the problem. In an era of profit-driven electric companies, costly investments to the system will be put off as long as possible, despite rising demand. With that in mind, here are four fundamental characteristics of the electric power system that must be considered:
However, when this process is implemented on a transmission system--in other words, when a line becomes overloaded and is cut out of the "loop" by its protection system--the power must flow along other lines, which may then become overloaded, resulting in a domino effect that could lead to a full blackout. Alternative control systems place a higher priority on preventing blackouts or on re-directing power flows to aid components that are at risk. Such systems are being developed, but will require changes to the entire power infrastructure.
Some would argue that deregulation needs to be slowed down, or even reversed. Others believe that hesitant deregulation has created a complicated, expensive, and unreliable structure--and that deregulation must be accelerated.
Given the complexities and uncertainties of the power system, is there any hope of preventing blackouts and the economic damage they entail? It seems unlikely that blackouts will be eliminated completely. However, actions clearly need to be taken. More intelligent and adaptable control systems would help if they were implemented in a coordinated way. Simple mitigation measures, such as intelligent control of loads, can reduce the impact of blackouts so key facilities, such as traffic lights, are not paralyzed when most needed. Distributed generation could make the transmission system more reliable by alleviating short-term congestion. However, for any of this to happen, we must resolve the uncertainties surrounding deregulation in such a way that incentives exist to invest in and run the system in a way that is both efficient and robust.