What Is a Blackout?

The word “blackout” is thrown around a lot in the media.  The phrase “blackouts and brownouts” appears regularly in power company press releases and TV ads promoting unnecessary transmission line projects like PATH.  As transmission expert George Loehr has pointed out repeatedly, “blackout” is a word that is used to scare people and stampede them into supporting power lines that will actually increase the likelihood of power failures.

Power companies use hypothetical future blackouts to scare people, but the fact is that West Virginia continues to have significant blackouts on a regular basis.  What else can you call failures that result in customers being without power for up to two weeks, twice within the past three years?

FirstEnergy’s and AEP’s WV power companies don’t want to talk about these blackouts, that have already happened, because these blackouts are happening on the part of the state’s electrical system where big federal subsidies paid by regional rate payers aren’t available.  The improvements to power company distribution systems and right of way maintenance will have to be paid for by WV rate payers, and that means a big fight over rate increases at the WV PSC.

Let’s back up for a moment and look at this word “blackout.”  Blackout simply means that the centralized utility companies are unable to provide electricity to large numbers of their customers because of a failure of the companies’ systems.  But not all blackouts are the same.  Some are the result of physical damage from a weather event.  Some are the result of massive voltage instabilities on the interstate transmission system that cause power plants to isolate themselves from the grid to protect their equipment.  In all cases, the result is the same.  Large numbers of people are left without electricity from utilities.

While transmission propagandists claim we might have another massive blackout like the 2003 blackout that stretched from Connecticut to Ontario, this blackout had nothing to do with a shortage of transmission lines or transmission line failures.  Here’s a link to the official assessment of that blackout.  Here is a summary of the report’s assessment of the cause of the blackout taken from Wikipedia:

Findings

In February 2004, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force released their final report, placing the causes of the blackout into four groups:[12]

First, that FirstEnergy and its reliability council “failed to assess and understand the inadequacies of FE’s system, particularly with respect to voltage instability and the vulnerability of the Cleveland-Akron area, and FE did not operate its system with appropriate voltage criteria”.

Second, that FirstEnergy “did not recognize or understand the deteriorating condition of its system”.

Third, that FirstEnergy “failed to manage adequately tree growth in its transmission rights-of-way”.

Finally, the “failure of the interconnected grid’s reliability organizations to provide effective real-time diagnostic support.”

The report states that a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) went offline amid high electrical demand, putting a strain on high-voltage power lines (located in a distant rural setting) which later went out of service when they came in contact with “overgrown trees”. The cascading effect that resulted ultimately forced the shutdown of more than 100 power plants.

A preliminary report says four or five capacitor banks in the Cleveland-Akron area were removed from service for government inspection, including capacitor banks at Fox and Avon 138-kV substations. These reactive power sources are important for voltage support, but were not restored to service that afternoon despite the system operators’ need for more reactive power compensation. The normal practice is to inspect in off-peak seasons, but government officials demanded the inspection when inspectors were available. The final report does not mention this government demand. The lack of reactive power compensation caused the protective relay trip that brought the system down.[citation needed] The same thing also caused the 1965 blackout.

This trip caused overloading of other transmission lines, tripping their relays. Once these multiple trips occurred, multiple generators suddenly lost parts of their loads, so they accelerated out of phase with the grid at different rates, and tripped out to prevent damage.

Investigators reduced the fundamental cause of the 2003 blackout to mismanagement by FirstEnergy, now the owner of two WV electric utilities, Mon Power and Potomac Edison.  They attributed other causes to mismanagement of plant shutdown procedures and monitoring during a cascading failure (the technical name for this kind of blackout) by regional system managers.  The transmission system performed just fine, with breakers tripping to prevent overloading and physical damage.  Of course, there was that crucial failure of FirstEnergy to maintain its Ohio transmission line right of way which created the initial breaker fault, but that had nothing to do with overall capacity issues.

So while FirstEnergy and AEP love to talk about some vague future blackouts, they are currently managing their systems in a way that is causing major blackouts on their WV systems every two or three years.  For decades, the power companies have been robbing their system maintenance budgets to pay for cockeyed new transmission projects and higher dividend payouts to investors in a shrinking electricity market.

The WV PSC continues to see the WV electrical system in terms of all powerful electricity monopolies and powerless, passive “consumers.”  In this world, the only solution for preventing blackouts is to raise electric rates to pay for more repair and rebuilding of the state’s electricity infrastructure.  Despite the fact that there are power generation and storage systems that are now economically viable for homeowners and businesses, the PSC and WV’s political leaders fail to take action to promote investment in these technologies in our state.

The PSC needs, first of all, to create real reliability standards that will force WV’s power companies to improve their maintenance and power restoration performance.  PSC staff engineer Don Walker has produced an excellent assessment of the situation and is fighting hard to have real performance standards put in place in WV, for the first time in the state’s history.

The PSC also needs to get WV off the one fuel treadmill for its electricity.  Electric rates in WV have risen 50% in the last four years, almost all of the caused by rising coal costs.  A regulated electricity market is a zero sum game.  If rates rise to cover fuel costs, they have to rise further for other costs.  If you can prevent rate increases for fuel, more of the consumers’ rate dollars can be used for power line maintenance and repair.  Unfortunately for West Virginians, that train has already left the station.  Get ready for rate increases on top of rate increases.

If WV does not invest more rate payer dollars in repairing the state’s collapsing distribution system, blackouts like the ones we have seen will increase in frequency and size and duration.  This is already happening as we have seen at least two blackouts involving thousands of AEP’s APCo customers since power was restored following the June 28 blackout.

Back in 2009, I actually heard a PSC lawyer tell the WV Supreme Court that if TrAIL were not built, there would be massive blackouts and brownouts involving WV power customers.  I wonder what this lawyer would say now that we have had two major blackouts since then.  The biggest of these WV blackouts has come after TrAIL was in service for over a year.

One thought on “What Is a Blackout?

  1. AEP’s earnings call transcript from this morning… AEP’s storm damage estimate? $230M. Of course they’re looking to collect most of it from us. We are too “poor” to pay for reliability, but we’re not too poor to pay for unreliability, apparently.

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