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The Blackout of 2003


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Experts Point to Strains on Electric Grid's Specialists

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Since 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.

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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 management.

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 adjusted.

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.

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