ince the vast blackout of Aug. 14, much of the
focus of elected officials and the public has been on how to fix the
country's straining matrix of power lines and plants.
But many of the industry workers responsible for keeping the grid
humming, as well as independent experts, say the human side of the
system is just as overloaded and vulnerable to breakdowns.
They put much of the blame on the growth of long-distance
transmissions of electricity since the dawn of power deregulation a
decade ago. Despite extensive efforts to plan transmissions and so
keep things in balance, those sales of power often send unpredicted
surges of electrons through the grid.
The workers, called system operators, say they take pride in
keeping the power flowing on an inadequate system. Their reflexes
resemble those of "a good combat pilot managing an aircraft that has
been badly damaged," said Dr. S. Massoud Amin, an electrical and
computer engineer at the University of Minnesota.
Still, Dr. Amin and other experts say, such skill is no longer
enough to prevent further extensive shutdowns. "The trend we're
observing," he said, "is toward increasing stress and strain on the
system, and on the human operators perhaps."
In interviews and e-mail exchanges, several system operators from
the East and the Midwest said there was no "perhaps."
The far-flung trades in electricity since deregulation "have
complicated our job tenfold," said a system operator for PJM
Interconnection, which manages power flows in a region of 25 million
people from Ohio to New Jersey and has largely averted blackouts in
its territory. Like his counterparts at other such industry-created
companies, this operator spoke on the condition that he not be
identified, because he is supposed to refer reporters' calls to
The North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC, the
industry group charged with preventing blackouts, says frequent
drills and occasional tests for all 5,000 certified system operators
keep performance at a high level. Donald M. Benjamin, a NERC vice
president, said that system operators took a certification test
every five years and that the council was also offering an
alternative to the exam: continuing-education classes with which
operators earn points toward recertification.
But some system operators say the changes in the behavior of
power in the grid, particularly those brought by the enormous rise
of wholesale commerce among regions, are outpacing the skills of
even the best operators.
Ten years ago, it was common for almost all the electricity
consumed in an area to have been produced by local power plants or,
less usually, by others within the state. Now those old barriers are
gone, and power increasingly flows hundreds of miles.
This result of deregulation has complicated an already dizzyingly
interwoven system in which a physical grid evolved from individual
utilities' linking their wire networks. Today communications
involving more than 6,000 power plants, run by 3,000 utilities, are
funneled through 142 windowless control rooms, one for each "control
area." These control areas in turn operate under 10 "reliability
councils," established by the utilities in the wake of the 1965
blackout in the Northeast.
System operators work to balance electricity flowing from power
plants into the grid against that pulled out by homes and
businesses. The challenge comes because power cannot be stored. As a
heat wave pulses from one part of the country to the next, for
example, demand similarly shifts and the output of plants must be
Every moment, system operators watch light-studded maps for signs
of overloaded lines or other trouble. A drop in voltage in one spot
can suck electricity from adjoining areas. A slight drift from the
standard 60-cycles-a-second pulse of alternating current can
endanger plants' finely balanced turbines.