State Headliners: On eve of Big Blackout anniversary, governors move to prevent region-wide power outages

By Guy Page

Maybe the timing was just co-incidence, but yesterday, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Aug. 14, 2003, Big Blackout that put 50 million North Americans in the dark, Gov. Phil Scott and four other New England governors announced plans to prevent crippling power blackouts.

The 2003 outage blacked out an estimated 50 million people and 61,800 megawatts (MW) of electric load in eight northeastern states, including parts of southern Vermont, and Ontario.

Maybe the governors remember the Big Blackout, but it’s more likely they are heeding this winter’s scary wake-up call. For three weeks of record cold in December and January, New England homeowners burned record amounts of natural gas to stay warm. Power grid operators lacked adequate supply to power regional natural-gas fired plants. The New England grid was already playing with a thin bench, due to recent closures of coal and nuclear power plants. Things got worse when a transmission line failure separated an operational nuclear power plant from its customers. In extremis, grid operators burned backup stockpiles of dirty, expensive coal and oil. Soon even these supplies began to run low. Had sub-zero temperatures persisted, the grim reality of blackouts, frozen pipes and frostbitten New Englanders was imminent.

In the aftermath, grid operator ISO-New England warned that preventing blackouts will require action. Yesterday, the governors agreed:

The New England states and ISO New England have recognized the challenge of increasing reliance on natural gas-fired generation during cold periods when the region’s natural gas is used primarily for heating. These concerns have been heightened as non-natural gas-fired generation resources, such as nuclear, coal, and oil, have retired in recent years. During recent winters, ISO-NE has been relying on more expensive, carbon-intensive oil-fired units to ensure sufficient generation to meet hour-by-hour demands on our energy system.

The governors in particular praised the low-carbon, energy security value of nuclear power:

Effective next June, the region will have two nuclear power plants that represent approximately 3,500 MW of baseload energy that is not dependent on natural gas infrastructure and also helps to meet emission goals. … It is important to continue to evaluate cost-effective policies that properly value existing clean energy resources which have significant fuel security implications.

Proposed energy policies, to be adopted state-by-state, could include:

  • Public “cold weather” education to conserve non-essential electricity and heating fuel, similar to messaging during summer heat waves;
  • Charging customers more at peak hours of consumption, hopefully to reduce demand;
  • Energy efficiency, including weatherization and combined heat and power, which reduces overall consumption of electricity and natural gas; and
  • New, generation such as large-scale hydropower and off-shore wind;
  • Working with Congress to ensure Liquid Natural Gas can be delivered in a timely manner during winter;
  • More backup generation, fuel storage and transmission.

For those of us who may have forgotten the 2003 Big Blackout, or vaguely remember seeing news coverage on our (electric) television sets, power was not restored for four days in some parts of the United States, according to the official EPA final report April, 2004. According to August 13 2013, ISO Newswire, New England was largely spared from the effects of the outage because protective equipment installed on the transmission system sensed the disturbance and automatically closed the ‘electricity border’ with New York, splitting New England away from the collapsing power system to the west.

But that’s history. New England’s governors have taken the important first step of acknowledging a serious, life-threatening problem exists. Whether they can prevent another Big Blackout is a question for historians of the future.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of NASA
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