Where Summer Blackouts Are Most Likely
Southern California and southwest Connecticut/New York City are the spots facing the biggest risk of electricity blackouts this summer, according to a report by the North American grid overseer.
In each case, the greatest threat is not a shortage of power plants but bottlenecks in the lines that deliver power from one place to another, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the industry's self-regulatory group. The situation in and around Connecticut, in fact, is so severe that NERC deems the region a "major load pocket"a kind of cul-de-sac in the electricity superhighway. The flow there is so constrained that it is the only area in the country where, in essence, there is not enough energy if consumers crank up air conditioning and other appliances at the potential summer peak.
The unknown factor is, of course, weather. Last summer proved challenging to the delivery system, with simultaneous heat waves in many regions. The nation broke its all-time record for electricity use last July, with demand reaching levels that had not been expected for three or four more years. "If summer 2007 is the same as last year, widespread, sustained, extreme [high temperature, high humidity] summer weather could be a threat to bulk system reliability," NERC's assessment team said in a summary to its membership committee earlier this month.
After last summer's tight electricity situation, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a leading consulting firm, estimated that $18 billion in annual investment in the nation's grid was needed to prevent future outages.
Some recent projects have been helpful. For example, although NERC's early draft assessment said that Boston would be a concern, the grid overseers believe the region has been aided by the electric company NSTAR's $220 million underground transmission cable project, which went into operation early this month. The 18-mile high-voltage line allows Boston to tap into the resources of southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It is one of the largest electrical-infrastructure upgrades in U.S. history.
But since transmission projects take time, money, and often years of political battle, the regional grid operators have turned to another resource to help them get through this summer: deal making. For example, PJM Interconnection, which manages the grid in 13 Middle Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, will put into place a new "reliability pricing model" that requires power generators to firmly commit their electricity to the customers in PJM's region for a full year. That way, PJM avoids the risk that the power companies might sell their electricity elsewhere for a higher price, as they could well do in the deregulated wholesale market, when a heat wave descends.
The PJM region broke three records for electricity use in rapid succession last summer, causing minor voltage fluctuations and leading to calls for consumers to conserve energy. This year, thanks to the new firm supply commitments and agreements that PJM has struck with businesses and other large users to curtail electricity use if supplies get tight, the region estimates it has 18.8 percent more capacity than its estimated peak usage this summer.
In contrast, NERC says that Connecticut's "capacity margin" is actually negative. NERC notes that New England grid operators have obtained agreements from some electricity consumers to interrupt their service should the load become too heavy, as PJM has done. But those arrangements give the region only 200 megawatts extra to count on. That's enough to power at most 200,000 homes, while Connecticut has 1.3 million households.
Southern California's problems arise mainly because it relies on importing significant amounts of power from elsewhere in the West, meaning the transmission system will be heavily loaded. But if power marketers try to ship large amounts of electricity on those same lines to take advantage of high prices, the system will have a "limited ability" to support those transfers, NERC concludes.
Since the nation's grid is interconnected, the spillover point authorities worry about for power problems from Connecticut is New York City. Transmission problems in neighboring states and Canada played a key role in at least two of the major outages in the history of the nation's largest city: the Northeast blackout of 1965 and the massive eight-state blackout of 2003.
In the wake of the 2003 outagethe largest in North American history, affecting 50 million people and causing an estimated $6 billion in financial lossesa special task force concluded that the single most important step that could be taken was to make mandatory and enforceable the voluntary reliability standards that were then in effect for electric companies. (The mistakes of Ohio company First Energy led to outages that cascaded across the Northeast in a matter of seconds.)
Congress acted on the recommendation in its big 2005 energy bill, and beginning June 4, NERC and eight regional organizations will have legal authority for the first time to enforce those standards. Violators can be fined $1 million per day per violation of any of the 83 standards in place so far. The standards run the gamut from technical voltage requirements to mandates on how systems must communicate with other systems if power problems arise.
For the first time, NERC highlighted an emerging problem developing on the nation's electricity grid. In Texas, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, large wind farms built in remote locations are pouring electricity onto transmission systems never designed to carry that much energy. As a result, all three regions are facing increased transmission line congestion and are performing studies on how to better integrate wind into the nation's electricity system while ensuring reliable operation.