Tag Archives: transmission

FirstEnergy and the August 2003 Blackout

The biggest power outage in North America occurred on August 14, 2003.

Why should Marylanders take another look at FirstEnergy’s role in that event?  In the first place, the blackout cascade originated from FirstEnergy’s Ohio territory and spread to neighboring states.   There’s also the fact that proponents of building massive new “coal-by-wire” transmission projects keep bringing up the August 2003 blackout.  This includes FirstEnergy’s proposed merger partner Allegheny Energy who wants to build the PATH power line in Maryland.

Coal-by-wire proponents raise the blackout danger in a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate public officials into approving their wasteful and unnecessary — though very profitable — projects.  If you examine the PATH application (Case 9223) before the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), then you will find numerous references to blackouts, including a specific reference to the August 2003 blackout on page 24 of the PATH-supplied testimony by PJM transmission planner McGlynn.  (McGlynn chairs the PJM Transmission Expansion Advisory Committee whose approval of PATH qualified it for FERC’s special 14.3 percent incentive rate of return.)

Unfortunately for PATH proponents, there is no evidence that the August 2003 blackout was caused by a lack of transmission capacity.  A recent report from the Congressional Research Service concluded:

as discussed in the official blackout report and other analyses, the 2003 blackout was not caused by a utility having built too few transmission lines, or because power line towers and substations were falling apart. The blackout was apparently due to such factors as malfunctioning if not obsolete computer and monitoring systems, human errors that compounded the equipment failures, mis-calibrated automatic protection systems on power plants, and FirstEnergy’s failure to adequately trim trees.  (p. 31, emphasis added.)

PATH proponents can’t resist exploiting the blackout talking point because the August 2003 was a big deal that impacted nearly 50 million Americans (and 10 million Canadians).  Michigan Governor Grantholm described the impact of the outage that spilled over from Ohio in Congressional testimony.  The Michigan Public Service Commission issued its own report on the disaster and had some rather unflattering things to say about FirstEnergy’s role.

In his Congressional testimony, FirstEnergy CEO Peter Burg listed several generators which were off-line on that fateful day:

FE units Davis Besse Unit 1 (880 MW), Sammis Unit 3 (180 MW), and Eastlake Unit 4 (240 MW) were off-line for maintenance outages.

This makes it sound as though the Davis Besse nuclear plant outage was routine whereas in actuality that plant was in the midst of a two-year outage caused by what may be the worst nuclear incident since Three Mile Island.

The Michigan report goes on to describe what happened:

…FirstEnergy’s Davis Besse nuclear plant had been out-of-service for some time. It appears that, with the Davis Besse nuclear plant off-line, the tripping of Eastlake Unit #5 was a major event in the northern Ohio region. FirstEnergy was left in a precarious position as far as meeting its load on that day. Power had to come from other sources in order to meet the requirements of the FirstEnergy system. (See page 18.)

All agree that coordination and management problems contributed to the crisis.  MISO is the Midwest Independent System Operator that supervises the transmission system in the Midwest:

According to the MISO telephone transcripts, MISO called First Energy at 3:43 p.m. and questioned FirstEnergy about the Hanna-Juniper line. The FirstEnergy operator was not able to respond to MISO’s questions and said that he didn’t know, that he would have to take a look. MISO requested that FirstEnergy call it back. At 4:04 p.m., FirstEnergy called MISO and stated that they had some problems. The FirstEnergy operator still seemed unsure about exactly what was happening. The operator lists a number of lines that are “off”, the Eastlake Plant unit that had gone off-line earlier in the day and the Perry plant that was “having a hard time maintaining voltage”. The FirstEnergy operator then asks MISO what it has going on. When MISO responds that FirstEnergy Hanna-Juniper line is open, the FirstEnergy operator questions that. MISO responds that it had discussed this with FirstEnergy earlier. The FirstEnergy operator states that they have “no clue” and the computer is “giving us fits.” A FirstEnergy control room operator told a MISO technician minutes before the blackout, “We don’t even know the status of some of the stuff around us.” (See page 19.)

Readers are encouraged to review the Final Report of U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force to better understand this complex event.

If the merger of FirstEnergy and Allegheny is consummated, then FirstEnergy will be operating transmission lines in Maryland.  Furthermore, they will be the owner of the proposed PATH power line.  The Maryland PSC certainly ought to take a close look at FirstEnergy’s role in the August 2003 blackout.


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Another Step Forward for Maryland Offshore Wind

Governor O’Malley joined nine other East Coast governors in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of the Interior.  The MOU commits the parties to work together to coordinate a variety of issues related to developing the massive — and nearby — energy resources located to the east.  States involved cover the coast from North Carolina to Maine.

In some cases, large, multi-agency attempts at coordination tend to slow things down more than speed them up.  In this case, coordination of this type seems to be merited.  Among the matters to tackled is transmission:

Examining regional offshore wind transmission strategies, and producing specific recommendations to address relevant planning and siting processes with Federal regulators, regional transmission organizations, and state officials.

Optimal development of the wind resources of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) will probably require an underwater, coast-wise transmission system linking together some or all of the wind farms (as has been advocated by Professor Kempton).  This would enable a more steady power output.

Planning this new transmission system will require the cooperation of three regional transmission operators — New England, New York and PJM) — as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  The fossil fuel interests will look for any opportunity they can find to stall this effort — as they have sabotaged the Cape Wind proposal for ten years.

One thing — besides prosecuting those responsible and assisting all who have been directly harmed — we should get out of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a determined effort to develop offshore wind in the USA.  We will need to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire.

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Peak Demand Falls — PJM Cancels Capacity Auction

PJM Interconnection, the private corporation that manages the regional transmission system including Maryland, has cancelled one of their regular capacity auctions.

These auctions are based on forecast of peak demand during the hottest summer months. Local utilities must purchase contracts for generation capacity to ensure that they will have sufficient power to meet peak demand.

Even before the current recession, demand forecasts were falling because of increasing energy efficiency.

Sent: Thur 02.04.2010 1:01 p.m.

Subject: 2011/2012 Second Incremental Auction Cancelled

Dear Members,

This is to inform PJM Market Participants that the RPM Second Incremental Auction for the 2011/2012 Delivery Year originally scheduled for July 12, 2010 has been cancelled. Through the 2011/2012 Delivery Year, Second Incremental Auctions are conducted only when there is an increase in the RTO’s unforced capacity obligation due to a load forecast increase. As the 2010 RTO peak load forecast for the 2011/2012 Delivery Year is lower than the peak load forecast used in the 2011/2012 Base Residual Auction, the 2011/2012 Second Incremental Auction is cancelled.

Please direct any questions to the RPM Hotline at rpm_hotline@pjm.com.

This provides further ammunition for those who say that PJM’s proposed multi-billion-dollar coal-by-wire transmission projects are not needed.

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Getting Real About Maryland’s Offshore Wind

A new report from the Abell Foundation details the potential of Maryland’s offshore wind resource to meet our state’s electricity needs:

… Maryland’s feasible wind resource off of its Atlantic coast (including both state and federal waters) is large enough to significantly contribute to the electric demand in the state.  Using existing, proven technology (monopile; 5 MW turbines) and accounting for various social, environmental, and nautical exclusion zones and conflict areas, Maryland’s available offshore wind resource could provide 67% of the state’s electric load.

While the study accounts for many of the conflicting uses and other barriers, the greatest obstacle to realizing our state’s vast offshore wind potential may be economic.  After all, bringing this new power into Maryland’s electricity market would make life difficult for incumbent generators.  They want to hold onto their revenue and market share even if their antiquated plants are dirty and inefficient.


1. “Maryland’s” offshore wind resource is mostly located in federal waters.  Whether in state or federal waters, agreement from a host of influential federal agencies will be required.

2. The new offshore transmission network will be under federal jurisdiction.  Will it be controlled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, another existing federal agency or even a new one — perhaps modeled on the Bonneville Power Administration (which operates outside of FERC control)?

3. The offshore netowrk must be connected to the on-shore transmission system controlled by PJM, the private grid manaer regulated by FERC.

In short, Maryland’s offshore wind potential won’t be developed anytime soon without the active cooperation of FERC and PJM. Both are heavily influenced by incumbent industry players who stand to lose money and influence to offshore wind.

Like any public agency, FERC is vulnerable to “regulatory capture,” a widely recognized mechanism whereby the regulated private interests come to dominate “their” regulators.  Just to cite one instance, FERC and PJM are heavily committed to building new “coal-by-wire” transmission lines like PATH that benefit major players including American Electric Power.  Rapid development of offshore wind would threaten the viability of this FERC “pet project.”  Will FERC fight to defend AEP’s PATH project?

Under the best of circumstances, realizing the potential for clean energy and local jobs described in the report would be highly challenging.  In the face of industry opposition bolstered by allies in powerful federal agencies, it may be nigh impossible without determined public support.

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NSA Call IBM for Reliable Power

The NSA (“No Such Agency”), located “in the vicinity” of Fort Meade, Maryland, is reported to be BGE’s largest single customer — and getting larger.

Agency officials anticipated the problem nearly a decade ago as they looked ahead at the technology needs of the agency, sources said, but it was never made a priority, and now the agency’s ability to keep its operations going is threatened. The NSA is already unable to install some costly and sophisticated new equipment, including two new supercomputers, for fear of blowing out the electrical infrastructure, they said. (“NSA risking electrical overload,” Baltimore Sun, August 7, 2006)

Tracking what everybody (you never know!) is doing on (and off) the Internet requires tremendous amounts of computing power and huge amounts of electricity.  And — big problem coming up — you need to make sure that the power doesn’t go off at an inconvenient time.  And you certainly don’t want to be dependent on powerlines and substations that can be easily attacked by terrorists.

Stupid idea: Run an extension cord nearly 300 hundred miles to the John Amos Toxic Coal Power Plant in Putnam County, West Virginia.  Someone has actually proposed this “solution” — it’s called the PATH project.  Sounds like something the Cheney Administration dreamed up.

Here’s a smart idea: Build computing centers that are not connected to the grid.  Generate your own power for electricity, heating and cooling.  And use a lot less energy at the same time.  IBM and Syracuse University have teamed up to do just that:

Heat from the microturbines, meanwhile, will be captured and funnelled into a double-effect absorption chiller that will convert the heat into chilled water. That chilled water will then be utilized to cool down the computers. Air conditioning can take up half of the power delivered to a data center. Waste heat by contrast is arguably free energy. The turbines and chillers will allow the university to run the data center off the grid.

In fact, it’s already built and ready to go.  Take a video tour.  Can’t say the same for PATH!

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Another Alternative to the Risky Power Grid

EBay will install five natural gas fuel cells with a total capacity of 500 kilowatts at its facility in San Jose.  The city approved the permit in July.  The fuels cells are made by Bloom Energy:

CNN Money in 2007 placed Bloom on its list of 15 companies that will change the world, and it said Bloom’s fuel cell could disrupt the idea that power has to come from central power plants. Sridhar’s plan calls for making fuel cells that can run on any hydrocarbon fuel, including ethanol, biodiesel, methane or natural gas.

The fuel cells turn natural gas into electricity with much higher efficiency than large combustion generators.   These small fuel cells could power single homes, neighborhoods or commercial facilities and could feed power back to the grid.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a study in 2003 explaining how widespread distributed generation could interact with the grid.

The U.S. military will be very interested.

Bloom was started by K.R. Sridhar who aims to bring the benefits of electricity to the billions of people not connected to any power grid — and likely never will be.

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Power Grid Risks Exposed

60 Minutes gave us a taste of current thinking about the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid to hostile action. It ain’t pretty: Cyber War: Sabotaging the System.

First, we learn that Internet attacks on private financial systems and secure government computer systems are now routine, significant and ongoing.

We also learn that the top concern of national-security officials is the power grid.  Here, the danger is that unauthorized access could be used not merely to monitor or steal data, but to take control of physical systems like large generators or transformers to make them malfunction and self-destruct.

The destruction of such hard-to-replace assets could leave parts of the country without power for long periods of time.  Building new, unneeded high-voltage transmission projects like the proposed PATH power line would leave us even more vulnerable to attack.

The 60 Minutes report concludes by highlighting the work of the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology which has been stymied by the “private sector” in its efforts to draw more attention to the problem.  In a statement, Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, said:

Most of the electric industry had not completed the recommended mitigations, despite being advised to do so by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. This effectively left many utilities vulnerable to attacks. Furthermore, in spite of existing mandatory cybersecurity standards, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (“NERC”) recently reported that many utilities are underreporting their critical cyber assets, potentially to avoid compliance requirements.

How many remember the days before 9-11, when the airline industry stonewalled efforts to improve airport security?  And after 9-11, that same industry was bailed out by the federal government and protected from liability.  The power industry probably expects to get the same deal from Washington in the event of a cyber-attack or other hazard that takes out parts of the grid.

One key point was missing from the 60 Minutes story.  The impression was created that only foreign governments were capable of launching attacks on our critical infrastructure.  That’s comforting.  After all, the Chinese are pretty rational and probably won’t attack our grid so long as we don’t attack them.  (They like selling us televisions.)

A more insidious danger comes from non-state actors, including terrorist groups or criminal gangs.  The unpleasant truth is that these unpredictable non-state actors may also have the capability to inflict serious harm on our power grid.  The 60 Minutes story does mention cases of blackouts in Brazil that were probably caused by criminal gangs.  (The Brazilian government is disputing the report.)

No wonder the Pentagon is so anxious to get off the grid.


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