A decade ago, FirstEnergy faced a barrage of questions about the Great Blackout, roughly 50 million people in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Ontario and scattered other locations losing power late on a summer afternoon. The Akron-based utility weathered much blame-casting, and that power line did sag into trees south of Cleveland, triggering the cascade of rapid events that ended with the lights going out.
But FirstEnergy the lone culprit? Hardly. The country eventually learned that the massive transmission grid required updating and improved regulation. So utilities, regulators and managers have gone about the business of making the grid stronger and smarter. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. have combined to devise and implement new mandatory standards.
Consider those problematic trees. Utilities must meet requirements for keeping them trimmed and out of the way of power lines. Most important, managing the flow of electricity, no easy task because the supply must be balanced across a vast range, has been improved through new technologies and communication procedures.
FirstEnergy, for instance, has remade its control centers. The company has joined with other utilities and a grid manager, PJM, to deploy hundreds of sophisticated sensors across the grid. That allows for frequent and constant snapshots of the power flow, putting all the players in position to react more quickly to problems. A utility now has improved capacity to shed part of its power load, a tool for easing pressure on the system.
Utilities have invested in upgrades. So has the federal government, in particular, through $4.5 billion in stimulus money. More, federal officials now have the authority to levy fines, up to $1 million per day, for failure to comply.
All of this has narrowed significantly the possibility of another sweeping and lengthy blackout. That said, the system is far from fail-safe. The U.S. Department of Energy greeted the anniversary with a report cautioning that the grid remains at risk, especially to severe weather, the episodes becoming more frequent the past decade.
The report carries the reminder that much of the grid, its transmission lines and power transformers, dates to the 1970s and 1980s. The system requires modernizing, all the more so to accommodate emerging renewable technologies such as wind. That won’t be cheap. Yet as the report notes, neither are power outages, costing the country an average $18 billion to $30 billion annually in recent years. So, going forward, the Great Blackout is worth remembering as a warning of what too easily can happen when the country fails to prove vigilant about the transmission grid.